9.24.2017

what i'm reading: news of the world by paulette jiles

After burning through several excellent nonfiction books in rapid succession, I have a small pile of novels waiting for me. Here's the first of, I hope, several fiction reviews.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles takes place in the American West, a few years after the end of the Civil War. The US South is an angry, wild, and dangerous place. Former slaves may be free according to the 15th Amendment, but white settlers may have other ideas. And the war on the indigenous peoples of the west rages on.

Against this backdrop, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower, a veteran of several wars, and a printer by trade, travels from town to town delivering news. He reads stories from newspapers to assembled frontier audiences, who pay a dime each for the enlightenment and entertainment.

Ten-year-old Johanna Leonberger has been orphaned twice -- once when Kiowas killed her frontier family and took her captive, then again when the US Army "rescued" her. Although blue-eyed and fair, she is Kiowa through and through.

Captain Kidd agrees to take temporary custody of Johanna and to deliver her to some Texan relatives 400 miles away, people she has never met and who have not been searching for her. The journey is long, rugged, and dangerous.

News of the World is the perhaps predictable story of the coming-together of the Captain and Johanna, but it never feels predictable. It feels very specific to these two people, who the reader very quickly comes to care about. There's some suspense, and adventure, and loss, some good guys and bad guys, but not in predictable ways. Throughout, the characters feel complex and authentic.

The story also carries a lot of commentary on how children have been viewed and treated over the ages -- often just as a source of free labour, and ever in danger of exploitation, as children the world over are today.

This is a lovely book, and also a very fast read. I see that Tom Hanks is producing and starring in the film adaptation. Do yourself a favour: read the book first.

the strange case of the barney miller rape episode

Watching Barney Miller as my comedy-before-bed sleep aid, I was stunned and amazed by an episode called "Rape" -- Season 4, Episode 15.

A woman comes to the station house, agitated and distressed. Captain Miller, with his usual calm and professional demeanour, leads her to sit down. When he hears "rape," Barney says, "Oh boy" -- as in, oh my, this is serious. He says, "Do you think you can give us a description of the man?"

She pulls from her bag a photograph. There's a brief sight-gag, as the photograph is in a small frame. She says about the photo, "That man is an animal. A degenerate. That man is... my husband." The laugh track booms. Barney rolls his eyes and says, "Oh boy" -- as in "we have a fruitcake."

Barney: "Mrs. Lindsay, are you sure?"

Woman: "What do you mean, am I sure?"

Barney: "I mean, I know you're sure this is your husband. But-- Nick, would you get Mrs. Lindsay a cup of coffee?"

Another crime victim who happens to be in the station house at the time says, "Kind of weird, isn't it? Raped by her husband?"

The woman defends her case to the detectives, and for a while it seems like the show is a lesson about the legitimacy of marital rape -- that the audience is going to learn about marital rape along with the detectives of the 12th Precinct.

"I have some rights, don't I?"
Barney says, "Mrs. Lindsay, we're in kind of a gray area."

She replies through gritted teeth: "What's gray about it? I didn't want to, and he made me."

Eventually, Barney is persuaded to treat the incident as a crime. Detectives bring in the rapist-husband for questioning, and an assistant district attorney appears.

The ADA is a woman, and a feminist. The rapist-husband's defense lawyer acts as if he's never seen a female attorney before. Even Barney is surprised. In 1978 New York City, I don't think the presence of a female ADA would have been shocking.

The ADA says to the victim, "I want you to know we're going to do everything in our power to see that your rights as a human being are preserved."

The woman says with feeling, "That's all I want."

Barney tells the ADA that the law is unclear, and questions why she wants to treat this as a "test-case". The ADA stands strong, and the live audience applauds and cheers -- a little. Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) speculates to the husband that in the future, "Rape will be known as committing a Marvin Lindsay" -- a statement that acknowledges that rape has been committed.

Up to now I have found the episode creepy and uncomfortable, because I'm not sure whose point of view the show is condoning. Then it goes off the rails.

Barney appeals to the woman in one of his famous heart-to-hearts. These little chats -- usually used in minor, personal issues -- often persuade complainants to give the other person another chance. The woman, formerly so angry and self-assured that she marched into a police station, says to her husband, "You want to know how to treat a woman? Ask him," pointing to Barney. "Go ahead," she says to Barney, "tell him how to treat a woman."

Barney has a heart-to-heart with the husband. The couple reconciles. He's going to take her out to dinner and buy her flowers. Suddenly she doesn't care that she was forced to have sex against her will. She'll be more willing if he buys her dinner first. The end.

* * * *

The episode aired in 1978, when marital rape was still considered a "private matter" -- a "domestic disturbance", if that. Kind of makes your head explode, doesn't it? It was all in keeping with the legal view of women and children as property. By the way, this is why second-wave feminists said "the personal is political".

Barney Miller, the sitcom, is a man's world. In the first few seasons, there is a rotating spot used for a female police officer, played first by Linda Lavin. The female cops are always very emotional and highly strung, but they are also good detectives, and discrimination against them is often acknowledged. Those characters fade away after a few seasons, and never return. Barney's wife Liz, played by Barbara Barrie, also fades away. The recurring character of Bernice (usually Florence Stanley), Fish's wife, disappears when Fish (Abe Vigoda) retires. And other than that, female characters are either crime victims or criminals, and the female criminals are usually sex workers.

Looking online for references to this episode, I found this discussion on Democratic Underground, from February 2010. Some commenters claim the episode was groundbreaking, airing the issue of marital rape for the first time; others think it's fine except for the laugh track.

But it isn't just the laugh track, and it isn't just the eye-rolling. The worst part of the episode by far is the positive-outcome rape scenario. That's when a victim decides the rape was OK or not really rape -- in this case, because hubby promised to wine and dine her next time. (Incidentally, I expected to find a definition of "positive-outcome rape scenario" online, but did not. Maybe it's called something else now? TV Tropes calls it "when victim falls for rapist".)

A writer on Critics at Large examines the live audience's response, and sees the episode as a watershed -- and as feminist.
For the first half of the episode the fact that the husband is accused of rape is a laugh line, but the raucousness of the audience track is at odds with the script and characters who are responding more with questioning looks (and genuine questions of law) than comical disbelief. And by episode's end – even though the accuser herself has walked back her charge – the audience forcibly applauds the young female Assistant DA's personal conviction to push established legal boundaries forward.
The same writer references another Barney Miller episode that was strongly feminist, which (for me) makes the rape episode all the more strange.
An earlier episode exposes the same, disconcerting dichotomy. Even more restrained in its scripting, in season two's "Heat Wave" a wife (played by Janet Ward) comes to the 12th to report her husband's physical abuse and struggles visibly with signing the papers. The centrepiece of the episode is a comedic but psychologically nuanced monologue where she oscillates between loving memories of courtship and righteous anger and fear, leading to her walking out without signing – throughout all of which the 1975 audience laughs with distressing nonchalance. But in the final scene, after a long beat, the door opens again and with wordless determination she signs the paper that will send her husband to jail.
When the actor Ron Glass died, HuffPo ran a piece arguing that Barney Miller is largely a show about empathy. The value and the challenge of empathy is indeed a constant theme of Barney Miller -- and the writer points to the rape episode as a strange exception.
Barney Miller aired from 1975-1982, so the social mores of the time are obviously much different than they are today. You’ll occasionally see notable examples of this, like an episode where the detectives are flabbergasted at the idea of a woman accusing her husband of rape (marital rape was still not a crime for years after it was a plot point on Barney Miller). However, besides a few exceptions here and there (like the aforementioned marital rape plot, which paid some lip service to the fact that it was, indeed, an actual issue in some cases, but mostly treated the wife’s complaint as frivolous - the wife turned out to just want her husband to be more romantic during sex), the show somehow manages to not really seem all that out of date on most issues when you watch it today.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ever-awesome TV Tropes puts it in perspective, listing the Barney Miller rape episode under both "Black Comedy Rape" and "Marital Rape License".

I'd be shocked if any sitcoms today used marital rape as a punchline. Wingnuts would say this is an example of censorship through political correctness. I'd say it's an example of the power of feminism to change our world.

rotd: thank you celina caesar-chavannes for speaking out on body-shaming

Today's Revolutionary Thought of the Day is very unusual, in that it belongs to a member of government. This thought should not be revolutionary. It should not even need to be uttered. Nevertheless, it is and it does.
It has come to my attention that there are young girls here in Canada and other parts of the world who are removed from school or shamed because of their hairstyle.

Mr. Speaker, body-shaming of any woman in any form from the top of her head to the soles of her feet is wrong.

Irrespective of her hairstyle, the size of her thighs, the size of her hips, the size of her baby bump, the size of her breasts, or the size of lips, what makes us different makes us unique and beautiful.

So Mr. Speaker I will continue to rock these braids. For three reasons. No. 1, because I’m sure you’ll agree, they look pretty dope. No. 2, in solidarity with women who have been shamed based on their appearance.

And No. 3, and most importantly, in solidarity with young girls and women who look like me and those who don’t. I want them to know that their braids, their dreads, their super-curly afro puffs, their weaves, their hijabs, and their headscarves, and all other variety of hairstyles, belong in schools, in the workplace, in the boardroom and yes, even here on Parliament Hill.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Member of Parliament for Whitby, Ontario

9.19.2017

do workplace-based tv shows make people dissatisfied with their jobs?

I recently realized that I enjoy a lot of TV shows that are themed around a workplace. There are the comedies, like The Office and Brooklyn 9-9, and my favourite sitcoms of past generations, such as Barney Miller and Mary Tyler Moore, and a whole bunch of sitcoms I don't watch, such as Cheers. But there are also dramas like Bones, and Suits, and older shows like ER and several others from that era.

You can see why the workplace is ripe for use as a setting. It allows writers to bring a very diverse group of characters, with widely disparate backgrounds, strengths, and expectations, into a situation where they must work together, for better or worse. The diversity and the need to work together is believable, if often not truly realistic.

But inevitably, as the show continues, the workplace becomes a surrogate family. In both Bones and Suits, many characters have no other family, or have only a small scrap of family left, or are estranged from whatever family they have. Each backstory is credible in itself; finding so many of those stories in one place, not so much.

But at least the Bones writers put some thought into why these workmates become so close -- indeed, whey they are closer than most families. Yes, the characters work in a highly collaborative setting, where individual expertise is only valuable insofar as it serves the whole. And yes, in their work, they are constantly confronted with the fragility of life and the spectre of mortality. But even accounting for those factors, the preternatural intensity of the relationships only makes sense because the characters have no other families.

In a separate sphere, we know that feelings of physical inadequacy are often triggered by unrealistic images of youth and beauty promoted in all kinds of media. We know that many people become depressed around Christmas, New Years, and Valentines Day, when we are surrounded with unrealistic images of family, social life, and romance, respectively.

So I wonder, do people feel inadequate because their workplaces don't resemble these TV teams, not even a little? Do people feel inadequate because most of their relationships are less intense than the relationships on these TV teams? Do some people wish their workplace resembled these shows more? Do they seek to become inappropriately close to their workmates, because they believe this is possible, or even normal, in working life?

Postscript: The title of this post is Impudent Strumpetesque.

Post-postscript: I intentionally spelled New Years and Valentines Day without apostrophes. I want to start a trend.

9.17.2017

in which i answer the burning question, what will laura binge-watch next?

In response to my help me find a new series to binge-watch post, I got tons of answers both here and on Facebook. I'm keeping the list for future reference.

In the category of watching by myself during R&R downtime, I am starting with Hinterland, which has long been in my Netflix list. I've watched the first two episodes, and it's very much like Wallander, a good sign.

After Hinterland, the to-try list: Peaky Blinders, Shetland, Fringe, Bloodline, Wentworth, River. Also will try The Defenders, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Intelligence sounds good, but two seasons and no conclusion is a dealbreaker. 

Possibles: Lost, Criminal Minds, Friday Night Lights. I was pretty adamant about not watching FNL years back, but now I might give it a chance. 

Will try both Man Seeking Woman and Letterkenny, but have to wait until either there's more episodes or the show ends. 

In the category of Allan and I watching together over the winter, which generally means the best shows and intense binge-watching and discussions: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Americans, not necessarily in that order.

ancient tv history: a gay cop on barney miller

Watching my comedy-before-bed daily dose of Barney Miller last night, I was surprised and pleased to see an episode about a gay cop. This reminded me of this post -- turns out it was 10 years ago! -- about a gay character on Dallas. Both episodes aired in 1979.

Officer Zatelli, played by Dino Natali
At the time I blogged about the Dallas episode, I thought this might have been pretty cutting-edge. Now that I see a similar theme on a show from the same year, I wonder if it might have been more mainstream than I realize?

In the Barney Miller ep, Lieutenant Scanlon -- a sleazeball from Internal Affairs* -- receives an anonymous letter from an officer saying he is gay, and no one on the force knows, demonstrating that being gay is not incompatible with being a good cop. The letter writer identifies himself as being assigned to the 12th Precinct.

The detectives are all surprised, but shrug it off as not their business. Wojo, who earlier in the series was the most homophobic of the group, is the most uncomfortable, but in the end declares that it wouldn't matter to him if he learned that anyone on the team is gay. Wojciehowicz, played by Max Gail, is the character who grows and changes the most in the course of the show, starting out as a lughead ex-Marine, and ending up just south of Hawkeye Pierce.

Captain Barney Miller himself insists that a cop's sexual preference -- as it was called then -- is nobody's business, and his contempt for Scanlon grows even deeper, which is saying something.

Recurring gay character Marty,
played by Jack DeLeon (centre). 
The gay cop makes himself known to Miller: it's Zatelli, a "uniform" who has an occasional walk-on part, taking over mail delivery when the diminutive Levitt (Ron Carey) finally gets promoted to plainclothes.

Barney's principal reaction to Zatelli is one of burden: now the Captain is obligated to let his superiors know, and Zatelli will be made to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Barney challenges Zatelli to come out, but acknowledges that is untenable. In the end, Miller respects Zatelli's privacy, and tells Scanlon to go to hell.

This may have been a very good lesson for the 1979 sitcom audience, but I'm sure the widespread acceptance of a gay colleague in the NYPD is a tad unrealistic. According to "Brooklyn 9-9" backstory, Captain Holt -- most awesome gay sitcom character ever -- became the first openly gay police officer on the NYPD in 1987.

As I mentioned in a previous post about Barney Miller, there is a gay character on the early seasons of the show. He was played quite mincing and flouncy -- although out and proud. Officer Zatelli is closeted, of course, and does not "act gay".

* * * *

Repeat offender -- the actor, not the character.
Another funny observation about this show. The minor characters, who are usually either the victim of a crime, someone who committed a crime, or lawyers, are played by actors that make multiple appearances -- as different characters! So the same actor appears, but he's not a repeat offender. His character has a new name and has committed an entirely different crime. Because I'm watching one or two episodes every night, I remember the bit parts more than real-time audiences might have. But I wonder if audiences found this strange at the time?

The earliest sitcoms, like "The Honeymooners" and "The Burns & Allen Show"** always used a stable of actors to play a rotation of bit parts. But I would have thought that by the late 1970s, this was no longer done. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Imagine if dentist Tim Whatley, Steve from Long Island, and the Lucy-obsessed TV Guide guy had all been played by the same actor!


* Internal Affairs is portrayed as devious, dishonest, and out to bust decent, hardworking cops.

** A pioneer of television comedy, and one of my all-time favourite shows. It's the godfather of Seinfeld.

9.16.2017

what i'm reading: the radium girls by kate moore

Readers of a certain age might remember clocks and watches with glowing green dials. The dials were painted with radium, the radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie. We had clocks like this when I was growing up. I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "The women who worked in the factories where these were made got very sick. They had to put the paintbrushes in their mouths, in order to paint the tiny numbers and dots, and they all got sick, and some died."

I never forgot that -- yet I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. Who were those women? Why were they putting a radioactive substance in their mouths? When I saw a review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, I knew that someone finally had answered those questions. The story of those women was finally told.

And what a story it is.

The young, working-class women in Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted radium dials thought they had it made. Not only was the pay better than most work available to women, but they got to work with radium, the exciting glow-in-the-dark substance that everyone was talking about. When one "girl" got sick and died, a doctor ruled the cause of death was syphilis (despite zero evidence and the impossibility of that claim). Another death was ruled pneumonia (also wrong). But as more and more of the workers became sick -- with horrific and inexplicable symptoms -- the pattern became obvious.

When the watch-painting first began, in the late 1920s, the danger of radioactive substances was still largely unknown. Faced with suspicions as multiple workers became sick, the company commissioned a study... then suppressed the findings.

As the women lost their teeth, suffered broken bones, lost their hair, lost pregnancies, became weak, and died, their employers worked overtime at suppressing the truth, denying responsibility, refusing to pay for medical care, and blaming the workers themselves.

If this story was fiction, the companies' actions would be barely credible; readers would say the author laid it on too thick, making the company out to be monsters. Some of the dirty dealings left me gasping. At one point, the women were all seeing the same doctor. They didn't know that the doctor worked for the company. Then it turned out he wasn't even a doctor! Officially, the women died of radium poisoning. But this book leaves no doubt: these workers were murdered.

Labour laws at the time were in their infancy: if a disease wasn't on a short list of specific conditions, workers had no legal recourse. What's more, even those few conditions were subject to a strict statute of limitations -- for which radium poisoning, by definition, would never qualify.

The media and publicity were much different, too. The two factories in two different states, with workers suffering through the same ordeals, were unknown to each other. When the New Jersey cases finally garnered national and international attention, the workers in the Illinois factory realized they were in the same situation. And when the Illinois women took the company to court, the town turned against them. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, anyone who could supply jobs was welcome. (This itself is a sad and telling commentary about working class life.)

Sick, disabled, and dying, the women were truly on their own. But they fought back, and they didn't give up. Their fight changed the world. Labour laws changed, scientific and medical knowledge were advanced, and precedence was set for greater corporate accountability.

Fans of Hidden Figures and the less famous but equally amazing Glass Universe will want to read this book. If you enjoy hidden histories, stories of struggle and perseverance, and real-life heroes a la Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, this book is for you.

My only criticism of The Radium Girls is the writing itself. It could have used another round of editing to tighten up excessive detail and delete some unprofessional colloquialisms. Whether anyone who is not a writer or editor will notice, I don't know. Any qualms I have about the language are far outweighed by the riveting story.

9.10.2017

help me find a new series to binge-watch

I need a new series to binge-watch.

Requirements:
1. Must have a ton of episodes
2. Must have good characters and relationships
3. Nothing too scary
4. Nothing sweet or heartwarming
5. No zombies
6. Best if the series has already ended
7. Best if in English (when I'm exhausted, reading subtitles is not relaxing)

Have tried (more than once) but did not enjoy or gave up on:
- Star Trek: Voyager (I really wanted to like this!)
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- Breaking Bad
- The Borgias
- Battlestar Galactica

Not interested:
- Game of Thrones
- Orange is the New Black

Have watched and loved:
- The Wire
- Justified
- The Good Wife
- Suits
- Boardwalk Empire (stopped after S4)
- The Fall
- Longmire
- Broadchurch (S1 only)
- Bones (just finished... so sad that it's over)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- Xena: Warrior Princess (more than once!)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Angel
- Farscape
- Veronica Mars
- Inspector Lewis / Lewis
- Inspector Morse
- Endeavour
- Wallander
- The Hour
- Murdoch Mysteries
- Prime Suspect (more like this please!)
- Monk
- Firefly
- Columbo
- Shameless UK (was in the middle of this when Netflix pulled the later seasons) (would like to start the whole series over) (not going to see the US version until I've finished this one)
- Bojack Horseman (waiting for the end of baseball season to devour S4)
- Detectorists
- Series Noire
- Master of None
- Sherlock (still have not seen S4, but will)

Have watched some of and liked, but not loved enough to continue:
- Marcella
- Scott & Bailey
- Luther
- Rectify
- Dicte
- The Killing
- Happy Valley
- The Bletchley Circle

For this post, I combined two separate categories of real life -- shows that Allan and I watch together, in between baseball seasons, and shows that I binge-watch on my own, in downtime when he's not home. The distinction is too difficult, or perhaps impossible, to explain.

Suggestions?

9.08.2017

in which i contemplate the personal pros and cons of social media

I've been taking a break from social media, and I am feeling the positive effects. But I do miss people. But I feel better...but I miss people...but I feel better. And so on.

This is your brain on fibromyalgia

I struggle with low concentration and intermittent brain fog. I believe it's from fibromyalgia, but whatever the cause, it's a minor disability or a weakness for which I must compensate. I have devised various coping mechanisms, and for the most part, they are integrated into my life, as are all my many coping mechanisms for all the bullshit life throws at me. (Not complaining, merely stating.)

I recently went through a rough patch where my mental state was particularly frustrating. I had a really hard time chairing a small meeting. (When I apologized, people told me they didn't notice anything different. But were they just being kind?) I had to write an email with a lot of names and dates -- numbers are the biggest challenge when I'm mentally impaired -- and despite checking and re-checking, I messed it up, and had to send a correction. My brain felt scrambled.

I sensed that time spent on Facebook was making it worse. I don't know where I place on the continuum from people who shun social media completely, to those who live on it, but over the years, I've gotten my social media use in a good place. Or I thought I did. Like a lot of people, I would jump on Facebook for short periods of time, several times throughout the day and evening. Now I think that may be the problem. Time that should have been free -- not so much down-time as brief spaces in between activities and tasks -- were getting filled with information. It was pushing my brain into overload. I say I think that was happening, because I really don't know.

What do I use and why do I use it?

Facebook. Most of my social media use is Facebook. I use it as an activism tool, and for connecting with an extended network of interesting people. Most of my Facebook contacts are people whose company I enjoy, but who I no longer see (and in many cases, never saw regularly or at all), or else connections to the labour and peace movements.

My union has an active, closed Facebook group that works really well for us. This means that when I take a Facebook break, I have an additional challenge -- how to post only in our union group, then leave.

Facebook also serves as a news aggregator and news filter. And I also get humour and general fun and silly stuff from my feed.

Unlike most people I know, I don't use Facebook to connect with old friends or acquaintances from former schools or jobs. I have zero interest in that. Apparently people find this odd.

Twitter. I used to use Twitter for certain specific news feeds, like Dave Zirin and and Glenn Greenwald. But I found that I rarely, if ever, saw more than the tweets and the headlines, and that was too unsatisfying. I opted for more time without bits of information scrolling in front of my face.

I like using Twitter for customer service, and for sending someone I don't know a link -- for example, sending an author a book review. Our union team used Twitter a lot during our strike, and I still do use it to circulate certain union information.

Instagram. I dislike Instagram and find no use for it at all. I know it's the current "where things are happening now" for young people, but that is obviously not a consideration for me.

Pinterest. I used to use Pinterest to find library programming ideas, until I realized how redundant it was. Pinterest amounts to a series of user-created directories -- and no directory will ever be as efficient and as comprehensive as a Google search.

G+. I used to post links to wmtc posts on Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter. One day I forgot about Google Plus, and that was the end of that.

So at this point, it's down to Facebook.

My problems are my own

People in my Facebook feed regularly announce that they are unfriending Trump supporters or similar pronouncements. That's never been a problem for me. I used to get into arguments with US friends who support the Democrats, but over time I disciplined myself to scroll past that information without comment.

Similarly, I hear about venomous bullying -- what used to be called flame wars -- on Twitter, but I don't see any of it.

So these common complaints about social media are not effecting me.

For me, it's all about my mental state. Since beginning my vacation from social media, I've been reading more, started and completed a jigsaw puzzle, spent more time outdoors, and in general, I'm thinking more clearly.

That is the question

Pros:

1. Brain less scrambled

2. Better focus

3. Reading more

4. Less screen time, which means more print time and (sometimes) more outdoor time

5. More mental calm and quiet

Cons:

1. I miss people

2. Less time with friends, so less support

3. I don't know what's going on in people's lives, so I'm also not there to give support

4. Less humour, less fun

5. Need to make more of an effort to stay informed

I'm not liking these choices.

9.04.2017

labour day 2017: demand more


CUPE Ontario's striking new graphic urges us to be brave, to be bold, and to demand more. Those two words -- demand more -- deserve our attention.

Every single law or regulation that protects us at work is a product of the labour movement. The right to days off. The right to a meal break. The rights of children to attend school. Paid holidays. A minimum wage. Maternity leave. All of it.

Many broader rights that have benefited our society were championed by the labour movement ahead of the mainstream, such as protection from discrimination for the LGBTQ community. All this, and so much more, was the result of working people, standing together, and demanding more.

We all know that union density -- how many people in any community are members of a union -- has declined greatly in the past decades. As corporations moved their operations to other countries to take advantage of cheap labour and the absence of environmental and health and safety laws, manufacturing jobs all but disappeared from North America. (Let's remember "the Chinese" are not "taking" jobs. Canadian and American companies choose to maximize profits, and governments and laws make it easy for them to do so.)

As well-paid, full-time manufacturing jobs disappeared, we saw the rise of precarious work -- poorly paid, part-time jobs that don't enable workers to create a secure life for themselves and their families.

In their short-sighted rush to squeeze more profit out of the system, employers have wrecked the economy and damaged the life chances of an entire generation.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can demand more. We must demand more!

Unions are central to this struggle in many ways.

Workers fortunate enough to belong to a union are the forward guard of the demand for more. Through the power of collective bargaining, we can win better pay and better working conditions for our members -- and raise the bar for everyone in our communities.

Courageous non-union workers who organize themselves and stand up to employers -- like the Fight for 15 & Fairness (in Canada) and the Fight For 15 (in the US) -- get crucial help and support from labour unions.

And finally, unions have the resources to speak to governments on our behalf, to make sure governments do the right thing for workers, our communities, and all of society, rather than acting for the narrow interests of employers. Here in Ontario, CUPE is a leader in that effort.

CUPE 1989 wishes you a happy and proud Labour Day.

On Labour Day 2017, let's pledge to Demand More: at the bargaining table, on the picket line, at the ballot box -- and in the streets.

This post also appears on the CUPE Local 1989 website.

9.02.2017

what i'm reading: the attention merchants by tim wu

Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale. (Incidentally, if you know anyone who believes the 'Hitler was all right at first, he just went too far' canard, Wu provides ammunition to shoot it down. From his earliest days making speeches in beer halls, Hitler was blaming Germany's woes on Jews.)

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- indeed, I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list.

9.01.2017

harry hoo, nick yemana, and the persistence of racism on mainstream tv

My "comedy before bed" TV watching -- the habit of a lifetime, and the surest way for me to fall asleep -- has gone retro again.* I watched "Get Smart" end-to-end and am now making my way through "Barney Miller".

Harry Hoo, Dr. Yes, and "Craw, not Craw!"

Get Smart was a TV comedy conceived by funny men Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and piloted by the amazing Leonard Stern. It's part James Bond spoof and part Inspector Clouseau. Don Adams stars as Maxwell Smart. It was to be the one and only part Adams ever played well, but boy was he good. Barbara Feldon as "99" and Ed Platt as The Chief were both brilliant, but their characters were purely straight men for Adams. Get Smart ran from 1965 to 1970. I watched at least the last few seasons as a kid, and have seen a few re-runs over the years. Watching it straight through, I laughed out loud through the entire series. It was completely ridiculous and completely hilarious.

Except for one giant cringe factor: racism. This wasn't about African Americans. Indeed, people of colour rarely appeared in Get Smart, and when they did, they were not in racist situations or portrayed with racist overtones. The racism in Get Smart was almost fully reserved for Asians.

Don Adams as Maxwell Smart and Joey Forman
as Harry Hoo. Prepare to cringe.
In the show's early seasons, Asian people were played by non-Asian actors with facial hair meant to be read as Asian, crude eye makeup, and heavily accented speech. Unlike the comic Russian and German characters who belonged to KAOS, the international organization of evil, Asian characters might be good or evil. Either way, they were never Asian.

As the seasons progressed, a few Asian actors appeared playing Asian characters. I don't know if this was in response to complaints, or if an Asian actor had some influence on the show's producers, or something else. But whatever the background of the actors, the stereotypes persisted.

One "good guy" Asian character in Get Smart was Harry Hoo, a parody of Charlie Chan, who was a fictional Chinese detective of books, radio, television, and movies. Except for a brief period at the show's inception, Charlie Chan was played by white actors. Harry Hoo was no different, played by a white comic character actor named Joey Forman. (The use of white actors to play people of colour has a long history on both the small and large screens, not something I can explore in this post.)

Everything about Get Smart is spoofy, so there are plenty of ridiculous stereotypes and anti-stereotypes to go around. It's part of the show's brand of comedy. But only Chinese characters are dressed in old-world costumes, their entrance always heralded by "Oriental"-sounding music, ringing gongs in their laundry shops, speaking in accents played for laughs. The jokes are beyond cringe-inducing.

Nick Yemana and the dinosaurs

"Barney Miller," which ran from 1975 to 1982, was another animal entirely. I watched this show regularly in its early years, often with my father.

Barney Miller was an ensemble-cast workplace comedy, so perhaps the comparison with the zany Get Smart is unfair. Barney Miller had no catchphrases, no physical comedy, and almost no cringey insensitivities. There is even a gay character -- a minor but recurring role -- who is out and proud, if mincing, and sometimes has a partner in tow. Jokes in those episodes revolve around the detectives' varying degrees of homophobia, not the gay men themselves. The eponymous Captain Miller, played by Hal Linden, treats the gay couple with respect, unphased, and it's from that character that the baseline is established.

In the run-down station house in which the show is set, against a backdrop of New York City's dire years of cutbacks, crime, and decay, the detectives of the 12th Precinct are a snapshot of ethnic New York. Whether the real NYPD was ever this diverse is another story. The detectives are a picture of diversity in background, lifestyle, and worldview.

Jack Soo as Nick Yemana.
Soo started his career entertaining
his neighbours in a Japanese internment camp.
Which brings me to Sergeant Nick Yemana, played with wonderful understatement by Jack Soo. Both character and actor were Japanese-American. (Soo died during the show's fifth season, a shocking loss for loyal viewers.)

Yemana's character and actions seldom involved his ethnic background, but he was frequently a target for characters who were racist but trying to act like they weren't. The show's Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory) was especially uncomfortable with Yemana's Asianness -- but the joke was at Luger's expense. The Inspector was a relic of an earlier era, a dinosaur who didn't understand diversity. He'd make embarrassing attempts at a "soul" handshake with Detective Harris (played by Ron Glass, known to Firefly and Serenity fans) and spout fake Spanish at Puerto Rican characters. The characters are all decent and sympathetic figures; it's the bigotry itself that's the joke. I wrote about a similar dynamic in the TV show "M*A*S*H," where only idiots and cowards glorify war, or hate and fear the Koreans.

I did say "almost"

The bad ethnic jokes of Get Smart were almost entirely reserved for Asians, but not completely. In the first season, there's an episode called "Washington 4, Indians 3" featuring "Indians" -- feathers, teepees, an inability to use contractions -- the works. After all, this was Mel Brooks, a comedy writer from a generation that thought it was hilarious to have "Indians" or "Nips" use Yiddish phrases. But to the Get Smart writers' credit, the jokes focus on the stupidity of the war-happy Pentagon, and how we're all on stolen land in the first place.

The "almost" on Barney Miller is really strange. Rape jokes? Really? That warrants its own post.

* Old TV shows watched: Bewitched, MASH (pulled from Netflix when I was up to Season 9!), Get Smart, Barney Miller (currently watching). To come: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show. Those last four I'm watching on DVD.