Showing posts with label indigenous peoples. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indigenous peoples. Show all posts

7.01.2018

happy canada day: a wish for a pledge

One unfortunate result of the current ascendancy of white supremacy in the US is the increase in Canadians' nationalism and self-love -- the strengthening of Canadians' conviction that our society is peaceful and democratic, our institutions benevolent, our kindness manifest in law.

We pat ourselves on the back while Trudeau spends our money trampling Indigenous rights, poisoning our water, and hastening climate catastrophe. We say "We're the greatest country in the world," while our most populous province has elected a false-majority, white supremacist government of our own.

So often, if Canadians can believe that it's better here than in the US, they are happy enough to stop there.

We can do better.

We must do better.

This Canada Day, let's pledge to push our governments -- and to educate our friends, family, co-workers, and ourselves -- so that Canada can live up to its reputation, a little more every day.

7.01.2017

thoughts on canada 150

It's Canada Day, this year dubbed Canada 150, with its own corporate brand and a carefully worded story of that number 150. We also have Canada 150+, which acknowledges that human cultures and societies have been living in what is now Canada for thousands of years.

I have mixed feelings about Canada Day.

First, I despise nationalism of all kinds, including the kind called patriotism. I used to make a distinction between the two (something I learned from my mother), but have come to feel that it is all the same: I am better than you because I live on this piece of land and you don't. In Canada, patriotism mostly translates into complacency, as if "we're much better than our neighbours to the south!" is good enough.

But more importantly, when it comes to Canada 150, are indigenous people. The very concept of Canada 150 excludes and erases the original inhabitants of this land. From an indigenous point of view, Canada 150 marks the beginning of colonialism, occupation, extermination.

This would be bad enough, if the horrors weren't still being lived right here, right now. A country that spends $500,000,000 celebrating itself should be able to bring clean water to everyone who lives here.* The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women issue should be wrapped up by now, a shameful piece of history, not an ongoing battle. Governments should be thanking indigenous leadership on the environmental front, and trying to reverse the damage done to indigenous land and water by extraction industries.

Most of my leftist comrades eschew Canada Day for this reason, and are disgusted by Canada 150.

I agree. And yet... I have another perspective, too.

I love Canada in many ways. I am grateful that I was able to come here and begin my life anew. I love that Canada was an early adopter of equal marriage, and now leads the way in the rights of transpeople. I love Canada's public health care (and wish there was a whole lot more of it). I love that women (mostly) have full control over our reproductive lives. I love the multiculturalism, and the strong reaction when that value is transgressed. Of course there is racism here -- which only means Canadians are human beings -- but the kind of virulence and violence seen every day in the US would never be tolerated here on a large scale.

The indigenous perspective is big news here -- emphasized in the mainstream media and acknowledged by the top level of government. Many countries all over the world refuse to even acknowledge a colonial or genocidal past. Words without action are meaningless, but no action can begin without that acknowledgement; while words alone are insufficient, they are still significant.

I have spent most of my life opposing state power, and there's plenty to work on here, on every front -- peace, environment, labour, health care, gender equity. None of it is good enough. But if we widen the lens to view Canada globally, it's one of the best places to live on the planet. There's a lot I would change and fix, but if we could magically give everyone on the planet the quality of life enjoyed by most Canadians, it would be a vast improvement. (Of course, the planet would collapse, because its resources would be instantly depleted. But we're only talking metaphor here.)

Canada is far from perfect -- and Canadians know that, acknowledge it, and strive for better. Which in turn is part of why I love it here.

Canada 150 doesn't mean a lot to me. But there's no way around it. I love Canada. That's why I'll never stop criticizing it.



* To be fair, most of that money went to repairing and renovating infrastructure that will should last well beyond the July 1, 2017 party. Perhaps that highlights the issue even more starkly!


5.18.2017

postscript: some clarifications and addenda to my recent post on cultural appropriation

Many people have been discussing my recent post about cultural appropriation on Facebook. I'm not surprised that many people disagree (that's why I wrote it, to put my countering opinion out there), but I have been surprised by how many progressive people do agree.

From the negative comments, I can see that I wasn't clear on a few important points.

1. The entire post refers to white, first-world people calling out other first-worlders with accusations of cultural appropriation -- not aboriginal people. I would not pass judgment or venture an opinion about a native person's judgment of appropriation of their own culture. I have no right to do so -- and I would not do so. I was referring what I see as a quite a large bandwagon, pointing self-righteous fingers at others -- by white people, and at white people.

2. The above might explain why I feel the words shaming and bullying are fair game. I wasn't suggesting that aboriginal people are bullying white people about appropriation. That would be absurd.

3. I do believe that on a personal, one-to-one level, we are all equals and must treat each other with mutual respect. I do not believe that membership in a historically marginalized group is a license to act disrespectfully. That's my belief, but it's not what the post is about.

4. My post was not in response to the Hal Niedzviecki controversy. I had been writing the post for a while. I have very little time to write, and I edit every post at least twice, so it can take quite a while for me to finish something and get it online.

5. The post was also not in response to me personally being taken to task for appropriation. The whole #fragilewhiteperson thing is not at issue here. Again, I was referring to white people criticizing other white people for what they have -- mistakenly, in my opinion -- labeled cultural appropriation.

6. Apparently some readers thought my post was in response to one comment I saw online. Believe me, I don't write 3,000 words about one random comment. I see this as a clear trend.

This postscript is meant for clarity only. It's not important to me whether readers agree with me or not. I just want to express myself clearly and stimulate discussion.

5.16.2017

accusations of cultural appropriation are a form of bullying -- and don't reduce racism

I'm increasingly dismayed by accusations of cultural appropriation that are used as weapons, rather than as a tool for raising awareness and educating. Accusations of appropriation have become a form of bullying, a weapon wielded to police and enforce a superficial obeisance to a behavioural code -- while doing nothing to address the underlying issues.

Cultural appropriation is real. It's a valid issue.

I'm not saying that cultural appropriation is not real. It is. I'm not saying claims of appropriation don't have merit. They do.

When I was a child in the 1960s, parents might dress their children as "Indians" for Halloween, without a second thought. Kids played "Cowboys and Indians," dressing up in hats or feathers, with toy guns or tomahawks. Can you imagine if someone had played "Nazis and Jews"? It's completely inappropriate to turn a history of genocide and oppression into costumes and games. That in the 21st century, people are still doing this... it's mind-boggling.

Racist names and logos of sports teams, the Disney version of stories like Pocahontas -- these images are demeaning, degrading, trivializing, and undeniably racist. They should never stand unchallenged. (When it comes to sports teams, names and images should be changed
immediately.)

It’s disturbing to see sacred images commodified and commercialized, reduced to merchandise, devoid of meaning. That's what our consumer society does -- to everything. Religious holidays become secular shopping marathons. Spiritual symbols are sold on infomercials. Leaders of movements who fought for radical change are re-packaged as icons with feel-good slogans.

Using objects of cultural significance in trivial (and usually commercial) ways is a hallmark of consumer culture. Everything is gobbled up by the giant maw of consumerism, then diluted and spit back, stripped of all meaning, in some mass-marketable form.

It can be depressing, and it can be enraging. But shaming people for their ignorance will not stop this dynamic. The proliferation of racialized language, the enforcement of racialized divisions, the policing of thought and expression -- all hallmarks of appropriation shaming -- do not increase understanding. They preclude it. The current opposition to cultural appropriation sounds a lot like calls for segregation.

The hyperbole is out of control. There is no doubt that dressing children in "Indian" costumes is racist. But it is not -- as I have seen it called -- genocidal. When everything is genocide, then nothing is genocide; the word ceases to have meaning. Perhaps this analogy works: racist costumes are to genocide as street harassment is to rape. They are related. They can be placed on the same continuum. But they are not the same thing.

The current climate of accusation is misguided and harmful. Some thoughts.

-- Who owns culture? Expression is not owned. Culture is not owned. It's not owned by Disney, and it's not owned by the Ojibway. The Ojibway people have a much greater claim to their own culture than Disney, but neither can restrict anyone else's use. No one owns cultural influences, and no one can stop anyone else from being influenced.

-- Who appoints the expression police? Freedom of expression is a human right. When that expression is harmful or offensive, then others must exercise their own freedom of expression in opposing it. But bullying people into silence is never OK. What's more, it doesn't even work! You might get the person to stop the behaviour, but is that the only goal? Submission and silence do not equal understanding.

-- The rhetoric has grown increasingly authoritarian. That alone should make it suspect. The accusations emphasize divisions. They create division.

-- Accusations of cultural appropriation trivialize racism. Calling a hairstyle, or food, or a dance "genocidal" is an insult to every culture that has experienced genocide.

-- Some accusers will say that using another culture's symbols is acceptable if one has engaged meaningfully with that culture. So who makes the call? How does the "appropriator" communicate their engagement, and to what tribunal do they submit their evidence?

-- Who decides? Do the self-appointed guardians of culture have the widespread support of the community they claim to represent?

-- The current rhetoric does nothing to bridge divides and promote understanding. Instead, it accuses, shames, and basks in self-righteousness.

-- The accusation of cultural appropriation is often based on assumptions. Are you sure the person you’re accusing has no “right” to wear her hair that way or to wear a First Nations insignia, or are you assuming based on physical appearance?

I recently learned that a co-worker of mine is First Nations. Had she not told me, I never would have known. Can she wear signifiers from her heritage culture without exposing herself to accusations and attacks? Why should she have to explain or justify her choices? And, it follows, why should anyone?

White women wearing African-derived hairstyles are a common source of outcry. What if we learn that the apparently white woman is actually a light-skinned African American? Is it then ok? Pretty soon we're back to the "one drop of blood" rule. We're DNA testing women to see if they were biologically female at birth. We're asking people to identify their heritage in order to be granted access to a culture. Why do we think this is OK?

The world is a heap of broken images

We live in a multicultural, mongrel world where cultures are constantly blending and shifting and taking on new forms. Almost everything in our common culture originated from some other culture, often from cultures that were once despised and marginalized.

Credit is important. Engagement is important. But even without it, no one has the right to police anyone else's culture.

We often hear that art is "stolen" from its sources. It's not that simple.

Artist Damien Hirst recently was accused of appropriating Nigerian art. Hirst admit the influence and credited it -- but apparently didn't say it loudly or often enough. I'm not a Hirst fan by any means, but here an artist is acknowledging an influence, and it's still not enough.

We can see the influence of African masks in Picasso's paintings, but Picasso did not steal the mask images. It is often said that Elvis Presley "stole" African American music and dance.* In fact, Presley was influenced as much by the music of his African American neighbours as the "hillbilly" music of his white neighbours (who were also poor, marginalized people). Those two influences came crashing together in the form of one (part-Native American) Elvis.

That’s often how art happens -- cultures clash, then give birth to something new. That may happen with or without exploitation -- but it can’t not happen. It will never stop happening, nor should we want it to.

Miley Cyrus was apparently lambasted for twerking onstage, a white woman performing a “black dance”. (I learned of this when researching this post. This "news" would not have been on my radar!) So some people are policing who does what dances, apparently ignorant of the way dance styles proliferate. First it's a strange, exotic movement used by an in-crowd, then it is seized on by the mainstream, at which point the in-crowd moves on to the next new thing. Surely we are not saying that some dance moves can only be made by people with dark skin? And if we are -- why is this OK??

Some responses to what's out there

Researching this post, I’ve read many thoughtful articles purporting to explain cultural appropriation, but I disagree with much of what I read.

In How to Explain Cultural Appropriation to Anyone Who Just Doesn’t Get It, I read --
for the first time -- about the supposed cultural appropriation of food. Nigerian jollof rice and Vietnamese pho have been given a supposedly hip twist by some famous chefs.

I don’t doubt that to some Nigerians (like the author) and to some Vietnamese people, this is offensive. To others, I’m willing to bet, it’s amusing. And still to others, it may be flattery. That is almost always the case. Does the writer speak for all Nigerians? Surely not. He speaks for himself and no doubt some Nigerians agree with him.

Jamie Oliver isn't hiding the fact that the dish is Nigerian in origin. He isn't trivializing Nigerian culture. He isn't using sacred symbols in a debased way. He has created some Nigerian food with his own twist.

Just about the last place we should look for cultural appropriation is the dinner table. Almost everything we first-worlders eat originated from some culture somewhere. Last week, I ate hummus, pizza, and sushi. Somehow I doubt the restaurant owners felt I was engaging in cultural appropriation. Can only Polish people eat pierogis? Should we demand that non-Polish people understand the historical struggles of the Polish people before eating kielbasa? Let's not even get into corn -- invented by the aboriginal people of what is now the Americas.

As ridiculous as it may seem to some to turn a simple dish like jollof rice or pho into upscale food, that is a part of our multicultural world that many people celebrate. It's not appropriation.

In this article in Jezebel, the writer wonders if it's all right for her to hang a dreamcatcher in her window. You do not need someone else's permission to decorate your home, nor should you be concerned that the art you love is originally from another culture. Find me some art that’s not.

This article from an aboriginal blog encourages us to learn about the cultures we borrow from, and asks us to stay away from images that are sacred and meaningful in their original culture. For me it was a welcome, compassionate voice in a sea of snark.

Many people are sharing this post from Everyday Feminism: What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm. I agree with a few of the writer’s points, but I find others very problematic. I'd like to respond to a few points in particular.

It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression

Sometimes it does. And anything that does that is wrong. The racist team logos and nicknames do. The skirt depicting slave ships do. Decorating your room with a dreamcatcher or eating Jamie Oliver’s jollof does not.

It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People

The writer uses the example of white people wanting to eat authentic Mexican food but not wanting to venture into "sketchy neighbourhoods" to get it. I get this. It can be maddening to run into that kind of classism and racism.

In our multicultural society, we can take what we like and avoid the rest. I think it's something we all do to an extent, including the people who complain about it. However, it is not appropriation. See above: the "yelpers" eating Mexican food are not using sacred symbols in a distorting or demeaning way.

The writer says:
So is every non-Mexican who enjoys a good burrito guilty of cultural appropriation? Say it ain’t so! That would include me and nearly everyone I know.

But now that you know that popularizing “ethnic” food can be one way to harm a group of people while taking from their traditions, you can think about ways to satisfy your international food cravings without participating in that harm.
I find this an enormous leap and assumption. I don't "know" this, I only know this writer thinks so. But more importantly, how can we tell if a burrito-phile is participating in harm or not? We can't. So let's not assume and render judgment.

It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor

Show me one first-world person who is not doing this, every single day, no matter what their background. Is any first-worlder so naive or narcissistic or self-absorbed to think they're not doing this? Where does this woman shop, where does she buy her food? It's not only the privileged that engage in this. In our economy of precarious work, very few people can afford not to profit from the labour of oppressed people.

This is something all first-world activists and revolutionaries should own. We profit from the labour of oppressed people, every time we buy clothes and much of the time we buy food. Believing that this is something other people do -- that appropriators do -- is hypocritical. It's delusional.

It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes

I am concerned with this. Challenging racist stereotypes is part of my life. It should be part of our daily work for justice. But this --
As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”
-- made my flesh crawl. Pretending to be a race you are not? First, do the appropriators actually pretend to be something they are not? Is Miley Cyrus pretending to African American? And more importantly, I find the language here – race, instead of culture or background or ethnicity – creepily regressive.

White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing

Here the writer reveals a fascinating bit of hidden history.
Did you know yoga was once banned in India as part of the “racist and orientalist narratives” that characterized Indian people as perverse heathens who had to conform to Western ways? The bands of yogis who resisted the ban rose up to challenge the oppressive British rule.

These days, it seems like yoga’s everywhere, and practitioners don’t have to challenge the rules of the government to reach it. It can bring up some sensitive feelings to say that non-South Asian people who do yoga are appropriating culture, because the practice benefits many people throughout the US.

But you know who’s not benefiting from the commercialization of yoga like middle class white women are? The South Asian people for whom yoga has a deep cultural and religious significance.
I ask: Do South Asian people oppose the popularization of yoga? There is evidence from one person. This may be the dominant thought in her culture, or it may not. I've heard my South Asian co-workers mention yoga with pride -- a positive piece of our common culture that originated from their original culture. This may or may not be the dominant thought of South Asian people. I wouldn’t presume to know. Neither should this writer or anyone else.

It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People

Freedom of expression is not a feeling, it isn't trivial, and it doesn't only affect privileged people. Just the opposite. Marginalized people are always more affected by laws and customs that curtail freedom of expression. Freedom of expression cannot apply only to certain people and not others. Because again, who decides?

I understand the arguments about power imbalance. But when you police culture, you are appropriating power. What gives you the right?

Let's be honest: many of the accusers, many people happily calling out others on charges of appropriation, are not themselves members of marginalized cultures. Many members of the culture police I see on Facebook and Twitter are North American white folks.

So what do we do?

Almost everyone in our world has a background of mixed origins and cultures. Are we only allowed to use expressions from our original culture? Who decides when an attribute from another culture is now part of the mainstream? Three or four generations after my great-grandparents emigrated from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the US, am I only allowed to use cultural references they would have recognized? We recognize that question as absurd. But we're willing to say that this white performer shouldn't dance a black-identified dance, and this artist shouldn't use African influences.

Researching for this post, I did find an article expressing the same ideas as I do here: The Dos and Don'ts of Cultural Appropriation, in The Atlantic. After describing how "getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation," using and wearing items gleaned all over the world, Jenni Avins writes:
As I dress in the morning, I deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall. And while I hope I don’t offend anyone, I find the alternative — the idea that I ought to stay in the cultural lane I was born into — outrageous. No matter how much I love cable-knit sweaters and Gruyere cheese, I don’t want to live in a world where the only cultural inspiration I’m entitled to comes from my roots in Ireland, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

There are legitimate reasons to step carefully when dressing ourselves with the clothing, arts, artifacts, or ideas of other cultures. But please, let’s banish the idea that appropriating elements from one another’s cultures is in itself problematic.

Such borrowing is how we got treasures such as New York pizza and Japanese denim — not to mention how the West got democratic discourse, mathematics, and the calendar. Yet as wave upon wave of shrill accusations of cultural appropriation make their way through the Internet outrage cycle, the rhetoric ranges from earnest indignation to patronizing disrespect.

And as we watch artists and celebrities being pilloried and called racist, it’s hard not to fear the reach of the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who “owns” what and instantly jump on transgressors.

In the 21st century, cultural appropriation — like globalization — isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s na?ve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.

So how do we move past the finger pointing, and co-exist in a way that’s both creatively open and culturally sensitive? In a word, carefully.
Avins then lists her own take on the how to show this care, such as "Don’t Adopt Sacred Artifacts as Accessories," "Appropriation is not a substitute for diversity", "Engage With Other Cultures on More Than an Aesthetic Level," and "Treat a Cultural Exchange Like Any Other Creative Collaboration — Give Credit, and Consider Royalties".

This strikes me as sensitive, compassionate, and mindful of the rights of all parties involved. We have no way of knowing if the appropriator has sufficiently met this criteria or not. So let's not judge them.

------
* I am aware of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I know quite a bit about blues music and early rock-and-roll. They are not the same thing.

2.07.2016

dispatches from ola 2016, part 2: libraries and prisons

I've had a longstanding interest in prison libraries, and was happy to meet another librarian-friend who shares this. But I was very pleasantly surprised at the large turnout for the talk Prisons and Libraries: A Relationship Worth Incubating at the 2016 OLA Super Conference. A panel of three librarians who serve incarcerated people in different capacities gave the presentation.

Why prison libraries? From a rehabilitation perspective, there is a high correlation between illiteracy and crime, and illiteracy and recidivism. Certainly education can only help inmates successfully re-enter society.

From a social justice perspective, most people in prison are there because their life circumstances led inexorably to criminality. Access to information can help change the odds.

And from a human rights perspective, access to information is a basic human right - but prisons are environments of severe information poverty. Contrary to popular belief, inmates have no access to television or internet.

For decades, prison libraries had been a regular feature of all correctional facilities in North America. They were run by professional librarians, usually with inmate volunteers. It will not surprise you to learn that conservative and neoliberal governments have eliminated the meager funds once used for prison libraries. New prisons - often run for profit by private corporations - are now built without space for a library.

Fortunately, there are librarians who are so committed to providing information services to inmates that they are doing so anyway, without government support or funding, as volunteers. As president of my library workers' union, I spend a good deal of time and energy pushing back against the incursion of volunteers in our library. But for some communities, it's volunteers or nothing.

Library services to prisons include resource fairs, book clubs (and kits to get book clubs started), deliveries of weeded copies of bestsellers, and collecting and distributing donated magazines. One of the speakers noted that readers' advisory is one of the few services that treats inmates as individuals, rather than as "a population".

During this talk, I quickly recognized the strong connection between this presentation and the one I had attended previously, on services to indigenous people. Prison librarianship is all about relationship-building - about listening to what people want and need, then trying to provide it. And as indigenous people comprise Canada's underclass, there is a strong connection between colonialism, aboriginal issues, and the criminal justice system. A disproportionate percentage of inmates in Canadian prisons are aboriginal.

The Manitoba Library Association's Prison Libraries Committee has published a toolkit called Library Outreach on the Inside, based on their local experiences, something I look forward to reading. I don't know when or how I could get involved in this, but it's an interest I want to keep alive in my mind.

I haven't yet read Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg, but I plan to. The blog Librarian Behind Bars may have ended, but as a lot of great information archived.

There are also several organizations like this one that distribute donated books to incarcerated people. On the blog Picturesque, a librarian offers a good overview of the job and its context.

1.31.2016

dispatches from ola 2016, part 1: choosing to walk a path

I attended OLA* for only one day this year, partly because I'm already missing so much work for bargaining and other union business, and partly because one day is often enough. There's a huge lineup of presentations, poster sessions, book signings, vendors, keynote speakers, tours, receptions, etc. - lots of etc. - but the presentations are the meat of the conference. Four presentations a day for three days is just too much.

As it happened, three of the four talks I attended shared a theme: bringing library services to underserved, marginalized, and socially excluded communities.

My first of the day was Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services with Indigenous Peoples on Purpose. Monique Woroniak, from Winnipeg, a city with a significant indigenous population, first set the social and political context. It was a bit like being at our annual socialist conference: the presenter using the expression the Canadian state, as opposed to Canada, and speaking about settler colonialism as an ongoing structure, rather than an event in the past.

Woroniak showed an old family photograph from a few generations back, when her own forebears - as for many Canadian-born Canadians - were "settling" the prairies. She set the current context as the marked increase in "public expressions of indigenous sovereignty," beginning with Idle No More, but echoing through Canada with a heightened presence of indigenous literature, and in Winnipeg, with social spaces, a magazine, and other events.

I liked her explanation of the difference between diversity and anti-racism initiatives. Diversity programming celebrates multiculturalism - a commendable goal, and better than its opposite - but it leaves power structures unchanged. Anti-racism programming and services seek to create conditions to transform that power imbalance.

That can only happen with (what is now called) a "community development" model. Rather than think of ourselves and our institutions as experts - the holders of special knowledge or at least the keys to that knowledge - telling the community what we have to offer, we work to build relationships, so the community can tell us what they need.

What this looks like in practical terms, as far as I can tell, is not substantially different than a purposeful and meaningful attempt to be more inclusive, combat racism, and educate the public at large about a marginalized community. The difference, it seems, is how one arrives at that goal. And in a field where we are measured by statistics - how many materials circulated, how many people attended a program - this shifts the focus from end result to process.

The most important thing - something we talk about all the time in relation to youth, older adults, or any other population we serve - is not to tell people what we're doing for them, but ask them what they want us to do for and with them. Sounds simple, right? The reality is remarkably elusive. In the context of austerity budgets and skeletal staff, taking time to build relationships and focus on process might as well be a unicorn ride on a rainbow.

One minor note I found interesting was Woroniak`s take on the use of the word "ally". She said (I paraphrase), "You don't call yourself an ally. If a person from the community you are serving calls you an ally, then accept that as a great compliment, but you don't decide that." I'm not sure what to make of that, given that Idle No More shares "I am an ally" badges online.

Next up: Prisons and Libraries: A Relationship Worth Incubating.





* Officially the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, but always referred to as O-L-A, as if we are attending the organization.

9.28.2015

bernie sanders, the pope, and the politics of amnesia

I see a lot of excitement online, in places like Common Dreams and The Nation, and in my Facebook feed, about Bernie Sanders, supposedly remaking US politics, and Pope Francis, supposedly remaking the Roman Catholic Church.

About Sanders, I shake my head and wonder why long-time Democrat voters do not see him and his candidacy for what it is. About the Pope, I wonder why progressive people allow themselves to care.

Sanders is the new Dean

Bernie Sanders has been praised as a maverick, an independent, and a socialist. All of which may have been true at various points in his political career.

Right now Sanders is running for President as a Democrat. He is not spearheading a movement to build a new alternative. He is not refusing corporate funding and appealing to the grassroots. He is not "challenging politics as usual," as headlines in progressive news sites often say. He is seeking the Democratic nomination, which means he will play within the boundaries of that game.

And that game demands that Bernie Sanders not run for president. I suspect it's already a done deal: that in return for firing up progressive voters and helping them to believe that their cause is the Democrats' cause, he has already been offered a cabinet position, should Hillary become POTUS. I'd be shocked to learn that this is not the case.

However, whether or not there is already a backroom deal in place, we can be assured that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic presidential nominee. No matter the size of the crowds at his appearances, no matter the polls. The nominee is not chosen based on crowds, nor on polls.

Just as we have always been at war with Eastasia, there has always been a Bernie Sanders. His name has been Dennis Kucinich, and Howard Dean. His name has been Jesse Jackson, and Paul Wellstone. He exists to reassure and corral the liberal vote. He does his part, then fades away, as the "electable" candidate is tapped for the big show.

I recently saw this headline: Sanders and Trump Offer Two Roads Out of Establishment Politics—Which Will We Follow?. In what way does Sanders offer a "road out of establishment politics"? During his tenure in Congress, he has voted with the Democrats 98% of the time. Sanders is seeking the Democratic candidacy and Trump is seeking the Republican candidacy. What is anti-establishment about that?

Francis is not the new anything

And then there's the "radical pope". If ever there was a time for the "you keep on using that word" meme, surely it is when the word radical is applied to the leader of the largest hierarchy on the planet.

In what way is this pope radical? He has said some things. He has made some statements.

Pope Francis has declared that Catholic priests will temporarily be allowed to absolve the sin of abortion without obtaining special permission from a bishop. And media hailed this as the Church softening its stance on abortion!

Absolution? The Pope should be begging our forgiveness for the untold number of women who have died from illegal abortions, the orphans and desperately poor children whose mothers were denied contraception, the families forced into poverty by the Church's own policies. The Church offers a brief amnesty for women who exercised their human rights? Fuck you.

Pope Francis has made some statements against unchecked capitalism and in sympathy with the world's poor. Has the Church renounced its immense, tax-exempt wealth in order to feed the hungry world?

"God weeps," said this Pope, at child sexual abuse, and similar statements of contrition that survivors have heard from two popes before him. Pope Francis praised his bishops' handling of the sex abuse crisis, only to back down after an outcry from survivors and advocates. One more "carefully choreographed" statement. One more nothing. If survivors themselves had not risen up and demanded the world hear them, the Church would still be playing whack-a-mole with pedophile priests.

Pope Francis has acknowledged that LGBT people are human beings, and perhaps will not suffer eternal damnation for leading their own lives. Gee thanks, Pope.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis has changed the tone of a tone-deaf institution that is decades, if not centuries, behind the times. Because liberation movements - of women, LGBT people, indigenous people, sexual abuse survivors - have changed our very world, the Church was finally forced to acknowledge modernity.

But he has altered nothing of substance, and certainly has not moved one iota towards radical change.

This pope name-dropped the great radical leader Dorothy Day, much as every US politician quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. But besides his speeches in the US, what did Pope Francis actually do? He canonized Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest who was actively complicit in the genocide of indigenous peoples of North and South America.

Yet this change of tone and some heartfelt conciliatory speeches are enough for the media - including much alternative media - to hail Pope Francis as a Great Bringer of Change.

Mass amnesia

I watched in wonder as liberal USians hailed Obama as the Great Bringer of Change, then had their hearts broken, as per usual. Yet now, less than a decade later, they appear to be hypnotized again.

Bernie Sanders will not save us. Pope Francis will not save us. We are the people we have been waiting for. If we want radical change, we have to band together and create it ourselves. Idle No More. Occupy Wall Street. Fight for 15. The member organizations of 350.org. Food Inc. No One Is Illegal. Marinaleda. Los Indignados. And a million other groups - groups without names, groups without media coverage - groups of people, acting collectively. This is the way forward.

Vote for Sanders in the primaries. Then dutifully vote for Hillary for president. And wonder why nothing ever changes.

6.07.2015

truth and reconciliation, past and present: why this matters to all of us

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has just completed its week-long closing event in Ottawa. The Commission was part of the historic settlement between the Canadian Government and the survivors of the former Indian Residential Schools.
Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The Commission will document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience.

This includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians.
I don't know if this is well known outside of Canada, or outside of people who take a special interest in indigenous issues.

The divide between natives and non-natives in Canada is vast. Environmental activism - opposition to the tar sands, pipelines, fracking, and Canadian mining globally - offers prime opportunity for cooperation and engagement, but that generally involves only front-line activists.

No (normal, thinking, breathing) non-native person defends the brutality of the Residential Schools. No sane person can feel anything but grief, sorrow, and rage when learning about such a system. Some people experience disbelief that such a system was ever conceived, let alone built and maintained, not unlike our feelings about slavery or the Holocaust. Some non-Native people who grew up in Canada wonder why they didn't learn about Indian Residential Schools in their Canadian history class.

Despite this easily-activated sorrow, many non-Native Canadians wonder: "What does this have to do with me?" I have heard very sympathetic people note that their ancestors had nothing to do with the Residential School system: "My family were peasants farmers in Poland/Italy/India/China."

What does this have to do with us? We are Canadians. Whether through birth or by choice, we live in this country. We accept its laws, its culture, and its history. And like the history of so many places the world over, Canada's history includes the cultural genocide of its original people.

As non-Native people, we enjoy rights and privileges that were systematically and utterly denied to those original people. Indeed, this modern country of ours was created and built at their expense.

We cannot take pride in what's good about Canada, and not accept - or even acknowledge - the pain and loss embedded in its history. Every Canadian who celebrates Canada - its beauty, its tolerance, its diverse cultures; the humour, the music, the health care, the Charter - must know this Canada, too.

It doesn't matter if we personally or our direct ancestors were responsible for this. We are part of Canada, so this is part of us.

What does this have to do with us? We are human.

Promotional poster from TRC South Africa
I am fascinated by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in general. I followed the hearings as best I could as they unfolded in both South Africa and Ireland. It's easy to be cynical about this process, especially when the current Government of Canada has a truly abysmal record on aboriginal issues (which, of course, goes hand-in-glove with its environmental record). But how else to move forward?

The course followed by dominant cultures and ruling classes the world over has been to bury, whitewash, and pretend. And when the issues continue to surface - when the past continues to poison the present, as it always will - those ruling classes either obstruct and imprison, or shrug and pay lip-service. Ignoring the past guarantees that it will never be past.

This is the societal equivalent of what each of us must go through to heal from our own past. A person who has not truly faced their past - whether in formal therapy, or through writing or art, or some other personal journey - will continue to be haunted by it. Only after an honest and full acknowledgement of their own anger and sorrow can a person move forward. Without that, we are forever trapped in, stymied by, prisoner of, our past.

The same goes for societies. Only through a honest, full, and public accounting is it possible to heal and move forward. Whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will be effective for individual Native people and for First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures as a whole, only those directly involved can determine, and only time will tell.

For more about Indian Residential Schools, in Canada and elsewhere, I recommend:
- Indian Horse, a novel by Richard Wagamese (wmtc review here)
- "Rabbit-Proof Fence," 2002 Australian movie
- "We Were Children," documentary about Indian Residential Schools (Available on Netflix; I have not seen it yet but intend to.)
- Broken Circle: the Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir, by Theodore Fontaine (and a list of related titles here on Amazon.ca)

11.29.2014

what i'm reading: this changes everything by naomi klein, one of the most important books you'll ever read

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era: neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

To reverse warming, reverse course

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

Less carbon means more democracy

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the 'market-based' climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

Already changing everything: Blockadia

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones", the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation:
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I despair. But it doesn't matter.

I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary changes are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence ever known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced, is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book.

9.01.2014

what i'm reading: indian horse by richard wagamese, a must-read, especially for canadians

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese, is a hauntingly beautiful novel about an Ojibway boy's journey into manhood. It was the Readers' Choice winner of the 2013 Canada Reads, CBC Radio's book promotion program. But if you're like me and don't listen to the radio, you may have missed it. Don't miss it. Indian Horse should be widely read - by everyone, but especially by Canadians.

In a slim, spare volume, drawing vivid pictures with very few words, Wagamese brings you into the Ojibway family. They are struggling to hold onto their culture - and indeed, to keep their family physically together, as children are being abducted and forced into the so-called residential schools.

Saul Indian Horse, the hero and narrator of the novel, survives the residential school by finding solace and joy in an unlikely place: hockey. Hockey is an integral part of Indian Horse, and Wagamese has written some of the best description of sport I've read in a novel, seamlessly knitting the poetry of game into the narrative.

It's that seamlessness that makes Indian Horse so special. As the reader journeys through the different times of Saul's life - his original family, the residential school, the rink, a Native hockey team, anti-Native bigotry, and so on - the writing is never didactic, the information is never grafted on. We are always in the flow of the story, reading more with our hearts than our minds.

For non-Canadian wmtc readers, residential schools are a euphemism for the government and church-administered programs that attempted the forced assimilation of Native children. These "schools" are more properly thought of as forced labour and indoctrination camps. They were places of horrific cruelty and abuse. For many Canadians, they have become a symbol of a shameful past that continues to echo into the present. But when something becomes symbolic, in can lose its specific reality. Wagamese brings us into the reality as it was lived.

If you're someone who cringes at the idea of reading about the cruelty to children, I encourage you to read Indian Horse all the more. What you know of residential schools is likely gleaned from news reports, perhaps when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was holding hearings. I strongly encourage you to read a First Nations writer's account. It's stark and honest, without being graphic or sensationalist. It's an important exercise in empathy, in bearing witness. It's an important piece of history.

But I assure you, reading Indian Horse does not feel like reading important history. It's one boy's journey, and it will move you.

8.31.2014

"humility is the foundation of all learning"

My grandmother had always referred to the universe as the Great Mystery.

"What does it mean?" I asked her once.

"It means all things."

"I don't understand."

She took my hand and sat me down on a rock at the water's edge. "We need mystery," she said, "Creator in her wisdom knew this. Mystery fills us with awe and wonder. They are the foundations of humility, and humility, grandson, is the foundation of all learning. So we do not seek to unravel this. We honour it by letting it be that way forever."

Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse (2013)

7.07.2014

what i'm reading: the spirit catches you and you fall down, truly excellent nonfiction

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures by Anne Fadiman contains dozens of passages that I'd like to share. My library copy is shamefully dog-eared, and I intend to buy a copy of the book for my bookshelf. But I'll restrain myself and will share only a single anecdote, related in the early pages, which drew me in.
In an intermediate French class at Merced College a few years ago, the students were assigned a five-minute oral report, to be delivered in French. The second student to stand up in front of the class was a young Hmong man. His chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. He also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He concluded with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavoured with various herbs. When the class period ended, he told the other students that he hoped he had provided enough information, and he wished them good luck in preparing Fish Soup in the Hmong manner.

The professor of French who told me this story said, "Fish Soup. That's the essence of the Hmong."
Fish Soup is also a good metaphor for this book, as Fadiman untangles a complexity of threads that caused "the collision of cultures" of the book's subtitle.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is the story of Lia Lee, a Hmong child with epilepsy, the many people who were responsible for her care - her parents and a large contingent of extremely dedicated doctors, nurses, social workers, and others, and the extreme cultural misunderstandings that compromise and obstruct that care.

It is also a work of anthropology and sociology, an ethnography (that is, an in-depth description of a culture) of the Hmong people, whose worldview and practices are radically different than any in modern society. Most Westerners know very little, if anything, about Hmong culture, and I found this aspect of the book fascinating.

The book is also a history: of the Hmong people, and of their participation in the American wars in Southeast Asia, in which they played a crucial, unacknowledged role, and which ultimately left them victimized, traumatized, and dislocated almost beyond imagining. (When thinking about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I am constantly reaching for words like unbelievable and incredible, not only as expressions of amazement, but almost as literal truth.)

Fadiman alternates between the history/ethnography and Lia's medical story. This structure builds suspense for Lia's story and prevents the history chapters from becoming tedious or overwhelming. The conflict at the heart of this story is complex and not easily unpacked. Piece by piece, Fadiman lays out the puzzle for the reader.

* * * *

From Lia's very first seizure, the conflict begins. The first seizure is brief, and by the time Lia's parents arrive at the hospital with their daughter, it has passed. The hospital has no Hmong interpreters, and Lia's parents cannot communicate what has happened, but is no longer apparent. And so Lia is misdiagnosed. Lia's parents are sent home with medication and instructions that they cannot read or understand.

What's more, Lia's parents view their child's condition partly as an illness, and partly as a sign of a special spiritual state. For the Hmong, medical practices are also religious, and religious practices involve medicine and healing rituals. Based on their understanding of the world, passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years, Lia's parents strongly object to many forms of treatment.

With one of Lia's siblings, herself a child, pressed into service as a translator, and most Western medical concepts having no Hmong equivalent, Lia's parents rarely understand the doctors' questions or instructions. The time-honoured Hmong way of dealing with such incomprehension or distrust of authority figures is to nod and say yes.

As Lia's condition worsens, the doctors prescribe ever more complicated medication regimens, further reducing the parents' ability and willingness to cope. Over time, Lia's parents would come to believe that their daughter's doctors were worsening or even causing her condition.

Everyone wants what's best for Lia, but without trust and with little or no communication, the medical staff and Lia's parents are in constant conflict. Before Lia reaches the age of five, she has been at the hospital more than 100 times, and has been admitted 17 times.

At one point, Lia is placed in foster care, an absolutely heartbreaking situation which almost kills her mother, and is so traumatic that Lia's highly experienced, loving foster mother advocates for the family to be reunited. Ironically, a doctor who is considered inexpert is able to break Lia's downward spiral by greatly simplifying her medication routine.

For the Hmong family, cultural traits that once had enabled them to survive, such as an extreme distrust of authority, or the propensity to have huge families, are, in this new context, maladaptive, even dooming. The medical staff sees Lia's parents as intractable, ungrateful, stupid, and maddeningly stubborn.

For the medical team, actions that are caring, unselfish, even heroic, end up poisoning relationships and endangering health, even putting Lia's life at risk. Talented, dedicated doctors, unaccustomed to being ignored or defied - especially by patients who are poor, illiterate refugees - find their efforts utterly thwarted. Lia's parents sees them as dangerous dictators who must be placated but ignored.

This is not a story of low-income, non-English-speaking people who were denied quality medical care. Quite the opposite. The family receives the services of huge numbers of people, all at no cost. Doctors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists lose sleep and become physically ill from the tensions of trying to provide care for people who reject it.

Nor is this a story of neglectful parents, clinging to old-world folkways or insisting that prayer will cure their child. It's hard to imagine parents investing more time in a child's comfort and welfare than Lia Lee's parents did for her.

And despite both these truths, Lia's condition worsens.

It's as if the medical staff was attempting to force a Hmong family through a narrow funnel called Western Medicine. The only way the family could have fit through that bottleneck would be to cut off their own heads. If you've ever wondered what "culturally sensitive medical practices" would look like - or if you've scoffed at the idea, believing that medicine is medicine, no matter who the patient - this book will be very illuminating.

Throughout, Fadiman maintains tremendous respect for all the actors in this complex drama, and views them all with compassion, yet with enough objectivity that the reader gets a clear picture. As a writer, I was awed by the amount of research this book represents, and by Fadiman's unerring ability to translate a huge amount of information in a lively and compelling way.

* * * *

The obvious and catastrophic mistakes chronicled in this book are not made by doctors, nor by Lia's parents. They are made by governments.

The Hmong didn't want to come to the United States, Canada, or any of the many countries in which they were re-settled. They wanted to live as they had, in peace and isolation, an isolated ethnic group in Southeast Asia, a people without a country. The Hmong were uprooted and devastated by war and its aftermath, then again by the incredibly inept ways in which they were resettled, a recipe for disaster which added trauma on top of (those words again) almost incredible trauma. Once in the US, the Hmong (like most refugees) have been vilified, hated, and subjected to bigotry. But because they vehemently resist assimilation - just as they resisted imperialism and forced assimilation for thousands of years - this racism can be intensified and prolonged.

Fadiman finds instances where Western intervention was filtered through a culturally Hmong lens, with brilliant results. When a healthcare worker in a refugee camp organizes a vaccination pageant, compliance rises from zero to complete success. When a resettlement agency is able to give a small group of Hmong a plot of rural land, within two years the community is self-sufficient - while the Hmong resettled in modern urban environments languish on public assistance and fare more poorly than almost any other immigrant group. Sadly, these positive solutions were extremely time-consuming and labour-intensive, and depended on the unusual involvement of one dedicated, resourceful organizer, making them all but impossible to replicate.

Researching online, I've learned that several medical schools have adopted The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as a required text for their medical ethics classes. The book has also led to changed medical practices in the state of California and elsewhere. You can read more about that here; the link contains spoilers that I have tried to avoid in this post.

1.26.2014

what i'm reading: four youth books and some kind-of spoilers

Flight is a thought-provoking short novel by one of my favourite youth writers, Sherman Alexie.

The main character in Flight, a Native American boy who goes by the derisive nickname Zits, is a troubled soul with a long history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He seems to be on the brink of a major transition, either going off the deep end or beginning the long climb back.

I don't know how to write about this book without spoiling it. So if you're like me, and you don't like to know anything about a book before you begin, and you like a book to reveal itself exactly as the author intended, skip to the next book right now.

Zits finds himself inexplicably inhabiting the bodies and minds of different people in the history of his family and his people. He doesn't choose this, and he has no control of it, but Zits finds himself quite literally walking in the shoes of his fellow man.

The boy's journey into other people's lives takes him to some watershed moments. He travels to Little Bighorn, where an encampment of Indians are waiting for General Custer to make that last stand. He inhabits the body of an FBI agent who kills radical Indians. Zits becomes the father he never knew, being abused and belittled by his own father. And so on.

For me, this book was all about empathy, that crucial and too-often missing process, the one that leads to compassion. But for the author, I think, the book is a vision of revenge, an endless cycle of hurt for hurt. I had a problem with the simplistic politics that views an Indian raid on a settler camp, an invasion of another country by the United States, and a terrorist attack on the United States, all as expressions of revenge. But as an exercise in empathy, the book works for me.

Besides, I believe I also discovered that Sherman Alexie supports war resisters. From the discussion questions in the back of the book:
What is the reward of a kind heart in Small Saint? What war stories like this can you remember? Refusal to commit violence is punished as treason. Are we hearing analogous stories about members of the US military who go AWOL or refuse to serve?

* * * *

Lois Lowry's The Giver is another book that is difficult not to spoil. The book takes place in a seemingly utopian future, the dark side of which is revealed a bit at a time.

Jonas lives in a world without war, without hunger, without conflict. It is also a world without individual freedom or choice of any kind, a world without art or music - without hate, but also without love. Communities have adopted The Sameness, and this genetically modified future has brought them some obvious gifts and many hidden evils.

There are some simple and clear messages in The Giver. Without pain, we cannot truly appreciate pleasure. In order to experience love, we will always know loss, because we are mortal. In order to live fully, to be fully human, we need the entire range of human experience. But there are some complex and contradictory messages as well.

As I read this book, I found myself considering the political implications, my mind flip-flopping back and forth from agreement to disagreement. Is this an anti-government message? Is it anti-fascist, or perhaps anti-socialist? Is Lowry implying that a society without hunger and want must be a society without choice? Is she saying that if we were to abolish war, we would also surrender the joys of music and art? That if a society seeks to conquer evils such as child abuse and random violence, it must also give up vitality and joy? And if that's true, should we give up on trying to better human society? And so on.

It was very thought-provoking! Heavy themes, but a quick and easy read. Well done, but I'm not eager to see the upcoming movie.

* * * *

Since I wrote about The Hunger Games and briefly about Catching Fire, I felt I should complete the cycle and mention that I did read Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series. Unlike most of the young readers I've spoken to, I liked it very much.

Mockingjay is a book about the harsh reality of war; one could even call it an anti-war book. It offers poverty, oppression, starvation, and crippling mental illness as the guaranteed outcomes of war, contrasted with the duplicity, hypocrisy, and utter selfishness of those who plan and profit by those wars.

This book continues to explore the limits of loyalty, especially in the face of moral ambiguity, which, we discover, is the only kind of morality on offer. All The Hunger Games books deal with questions of reality - what is real, what is fiction - but Mockingjay takes these issues much further, always asking, "Real or not real?"

I liked that the book gives us hope. But I wanted to trust and love the revolution. I wanted Katniss to be able to trust and love the revolution, too.

* * * *

Alexie is a Native American, and his work always explores issues of growing up Indian in 21st Century North America. But his work is also about growing up, and fitting in, and finding your place in the world. It is specific, about Indians. And it's universal, about all of us.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award in 2007, is a hilarious and heartbreaking look inside the world of one teenage boy. He must navigate the constant conflict between being true to himself and trying to reach his own potential, and his loyalty to his group. This would be a lot easier if his group wasn't usually drinking themselves to death and wasting their entire lives, and if being true to himself didn't mean being the only Indian and the only poor kid in a school for rich white kids.

There are who-knows-how-many books out there told in breezy conversational, diary style. To me, most sound stilted and inauthentic. This was Alexie's first young-adult novel - and he absolutely nailed it.

If you are a fan of Roddy Doyle, as I am, Absolutely True Adventures may remind you of his Barrytown books. Alexie has that same uncanny ability to tackle extremely serious subjects in a humourous way.

Added incentive to read this book: it is always on the most-challenged list and has been banned from many school libraries.

8.18.2013

discoveries make me happy

I am always astonished to see stories such as these.
A tree-dwelling animal with a teddy-bear-like face and rust-coloured fur has become the newest mammal species discovered by scientists.

The olinguito, the smallest known member of the raccoon family, lives in the cloud forests high in the Andes Mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, reported a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which described it in the journal ZooKeys Thursday.

The animal has actually been displayed in museums and zoos over the past 100 years, but was mistakenly identified as a different, known species among its close relatives, the olingo.

"It's been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time," Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and lead author of the new report, told The Associated Press.
And this.
Giant Maya Carvings Found in Guatemala

Archaeologist Anya Shetler cleans an inscription below an ancient stucco frieze recently unearthed in the buried Maya city of Holmul in the Peten region of Guatemala. Sunlight from a tunnel entrance highlights the carved legs of a ruler sitting atop the head of a Maya mountain spirit.

The enormous frieze—which measures 26 feet by nearly 7 feet (8 meters by 2 meters)—depicts human figures in a mythological setting, suggesting these may be deified rulers. It was discovered in July in the buried foundations of a rectangular pyramid in Holmul.


Maya archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli and his team were excavating a tunnel left open by looters when they happened upon the frieze. "The looters had come close to it, but they hadn't seen it," Estrada-Belli said.

According to Estrada-Belli, the frieze is one of the best preserved examples of its kind. "It's 95 percent preserved. There's only one corner that's not well preserved because it's too close to the surface, but the rest of it isn't missing any parts," said Estrada-Belli, who is affiliated with Tulane University, Boston University, and the American Museum of Natural History and who is also a National Geographic Explorer. His excavations at Holmul were supported by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program.

Maya archaeologist Marcello Canuto agreed, calling the frieze "amazingly and beautifully preserved."
And this.
Archaeologists have discovered a hidden tomb of the Wari, a monument from an early civilization that predated the Inca, nestled in a site 175 miles north of Lima, Peru. The funerary chamber, ensconced in a stepped pyramid, had been filled with more than 1,200 artifacts, including gold- and silver-inlaid jewelry, ceremonial axes, looms and spindles.

The Wari mausoleum at El Castillo de Huarmey is the first pyramid discovered at the site that has not been looted, Milosz Giersz, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw who headed the expedition, said in an interview. It holds an altar-like throne and the bodies of 63 people, mostly women. Bodies were placed in seated position and wrapped in disintegrating cloth. Some were probably human sacrifices, and three of them are thought to be Wari queens.

“We know little about this culture,” Giersz said, “and this discovery is the first one which brings us so much information about the funerary practices of the highest-ranking elite and the role of the woman in pre-Hispanic times.”

The artifacts included ear-ornaments called orejeras, rattles, looms, spindles, as well as ceramics from all over the realm. A rare alabaster vessel bears depictions of fights between the coastal warriors and foreign invaders.

The Wari were an Andean civilization that flourished in the coastal regions from roughly 500 AD to 1000 AD, well before the Inca empire's 13th century rise. But very little is known about the Wari, because they appear to have left no written record of their lives. The Inca, though they were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, were also documented by them, and so archaeologists have a better record of their society.

For archaeologists studying the Wari, such pristine finds are invaluable additions to understanding this ancient culture, Giersz said.
I find it thrilling to realize that we humans have not completely discovered, mapped, and classified all that exists on our planet. More technology will be invented, of course, and doubtless more lethal weaponry. More art will be created, and words will be spun in some new order to inspire or horrify or entertain us. But more pieces of ancient civilizations to be discovered? A species humans have yet to study? Amazing.

I wonder which will come first, the total exploration of Earth or its total destruction.

7.21.2013

a people's history of british columbia, and a chance to preserve it for the future

Here's a chance to preserve Canadian history - the real history, not the government-approved kind - and to preserve art and creativity and alternative media, all at the same time.


Please consider giving $7.00 - or any amount - and sharing this excellent campaign with your friends and on social media. More info:
Hi! My name is Nicole Marie Guiniling and I’m the founder of Ad Astra Comix.

Ad Astra is a website that promotes political and historical comic books, and has recently stepped, albeit with shakey legs, into production, distribution, and publishing.

Over the next 40 days, I'm here on IndieGoGo to promote the re-mastering of "100 Year Rip-Off: The Real History of British Columbia." It’s a graphic history of the province that was first published in 1971. That makes it the oldest "Graphic History" on record in Canada.

100 Year Rip-Off

In July 1971, 100 Year Rip-Off was printed as an 8-page tabloid-sized insert in the counter-culture newspaper, Socialist Youth. It was produced in response to festivities celebrating 100 years of British Columbia's time as a Canadian province. When I first looked through it 40 years later, I was holding a photocopy of a photocopy--after four decades out of print, it was unlikely that too many originals were still around.

Pages were creased, graphics were scarred, and the text was messy, but I loved it. What a wonderful documentation--and piece, in and of itself--of B.C. history! I just knew that if the work were re-issued, there would be others like me who would want to see it.

In cooperation with the original artist, Bob Altwein, Ad Astra Comix is re-releasing 100 Year Rip-Off for a new generation of readers. The original work has been re-mastered and re-formatted into a black-and-white, 30-page comic book--the same size as your garden-variety Marvel or DC comic.

Ad Astra Comix is already at the presses, ready to begin printing.... but in order to get 100 Year Rip-Off into comic shops across Canada, we need costs to be as low as possible.

6.15.2013

dave zirin writes to dan snyder: why the washington nfl team must change its name

Here is the definitive piece on why the NFL team in Washington DC must change its name, written by - who else - Dave Zirin: Enough: An Open Letter to Enough Dan Snyder, at Grantland. Please go and read it.

3.18.2013

1500 kilometres by foot through the arctic winter: the journey of the nishiyuu nears ottawa

On January 16, 2013, six young Cree men and an experienced guide left their community on Hudson's Bay, in the far north, on foot. Their destination: Parliament Hill, Ottawa. Along their route, other aboriginal youth joined them, and together, now almost 200 strong, they are still walking.

This is the Journey of Nishiyuu, or, the Quest For Unity.

The walkers will reach Ottawa on March 25, having walked more than 1500 kilometres in sub-zero temperatures.

These impressive young people stand in solidarity with Idle No More, and seek to protect their land and their heritage, and to build unity among the indigenous peoples of Canada, and of the world. From their media release:
As our ancestors did before them, the youths will encounter a lot of challenges and hardships along their journey that will attempt to stop them from completing their objectives, including having to confront the elements during the coldest and harshest months in our region.

By facing these challenges that our people are subjected to everyday, our youths will reinforce the traditional bonds that existed between the Cree Nation and our historical allies by restoring the traditional trade routes that linked the Cree, Algonquin, Mohawk and other First Nations throughout Turtle Island for the betterment of future generations.

The Whapmagoostui First Nation greatly applaud this initiative and wish to express our full support and pride in our youths and in our community members for choosing to accept such an incredible challenge that will solidify the bonds between our nation and those of our brothers and sisters across Canada.

The time to stand united is now, we support the Idle No More Movement and respect the duties entrusted upon our Leaders. Through peaceful processes, unity and proper negotiations, we can solidify our rights to ensure the earth and our way of life will be fully protected forever.

Please join us as we pray for a safe journey and return of our youths.
On their website, Journey of Nishiyuu, you can read a blog of their journey, and read more about their quest. If you live near Ottawa, you can welcome the walkers when they arrive.

The blog The Answer Is 42 has posted some helpful maps to help us visualize the journey: here. I really dig this blog's tagline: "Do Justly - Love Mercy - Walk Humbly - Afflict the Oppressor". Another good place to follow the journey is Ahki.

Journey of Nishiyuu is another demonstration of the คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019global movement of indigenous peoples joining together to defend the Rights of Mother Earth.

From the mainstream media, mostly silence.

But this movement is becoming too big to ignore.