Is sunscreen harmful?

Recently the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report on sunscreen recommending only 39 of 500 sunscreens investigated. The report has been picked up by media outlets and now sunscreen is being touted as cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting. The report is not fraudulent, but it is somewhat specious, inflammatory, and alarmist. I’ve researched some of the claims and there is no reason to run screaming from sunscreen, as we’ll see.

One of EWG’s concerns is that many sunscreens lack UVA protection. This was absolutely true at one time, but is quickly changing. Many sunscreens are now “broad spectrum” or “double barrier,” protecting against UVA and UVB radiation.

Ultraviolet radiation comes in UVB and UVA forms. UVB radiation is that type that gives you sunburns; UVA radiation is the type that penetrates deeper into the skin and causes breakdown and more permanent damage. Both UVA and UVB rays are known to cause cancer, so it is best to purchase sunscreens (and sunglasses) that protect against both forms of radiation.

Another issue raised by the EWG report is that SPF numbers on sunscreens are climbing higher and higher, but there is little proof that such products are necessarily better. Again, this is true.

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) on sunscreen labels refers to how well the product protects against sunburn (UVB). For example, without any sunscreen at all it may take you 10 minutes to burn in the sun, but using SPF 15 sunscreen would extend that time from 10 minutes to 150 minutes.

There are a few important things to keep in mind. First, because SPF measures the amount of time it takes to burn, it is only a measure of UVB protection – not UVA protection. Second, as noted in this document from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, above SPF 15 there are not great differences in protection. SPF 15 protects against about 93% of UVB radiation and SPF 30 protects against 97%. It’s very gradual from there on up.

Therefore, more important than the SPF number are the amount of sunscreen applied and the frequency of application. SPF numbers are typically based on a recommended application of 30mL (about 2 tablespoons) for the entire body. Most people apply less than this. Also, sunscreen should be re-applied every two hours and always after swimming. If the correct amount of sunscreen and frequency of application are observed, it makes little difference whether you use SPF 30 or SPF 60.

Although the case is not 100% closed on the link between sun exposure and cancer, there is plenty of scientific evidence of a link between sun exposure and basal cell carcinoma/squamous cell carcinoma (the common but rarely fatal, non-melanoma cancers that cause ‘scabs’ that can be removed). Melanoma is much more rare, but frequently fatal. The direct link between sun exposure and melanoma is not as clear as it is with carcinoma, but this doesn’t mean that intentionally baking in the sun or in a tanning bed is a good idea.

The EWG report claims that there is “no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer.” This is somewhat true. The research is not 100% clear on a link between sunscreen and protection against skin cancer, but it is fairly favourable so far; generally scientists agree that sunscreen can protect against cancer if, as stated earlier, it is applied in the amounts and with the frequency recommended. A quick slather in the morning may actually do more harm than good, providing people with a false sense of protection against the sun, causing them to have more exposure to dangerous UV radiation. (High SPF numbers may also provide this false sense of protection.)

Although I have been using the term “sunscreen” throughout this article, there actually is a difference between sunblock and sunscreen.

Sunblock, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, is more effective than sunscreen and is opaque (like the white stuff lifeguards often wear on their noses). Particulate matter in sunblock reflects and scatters the UV rays, physically blocking the sun. Sunblocks protect against UVA and UVB radiation, are safe, and are photostable (photostability refers to whether/how quickly the ingredients are broken down when irradiated). Vanity is essentially what prevents people from using such sunblocks – because it is opaque people don’t want to spend a day at the beach with a white coating all over their body. Although there are titanium and zinc products available now that are nearly transparent.

Sunscreen filters and absorbs UV radiation, converting it to heat. Although more and more sunscreens are being made with UVA and UVB protection (“broad spectrum” or “double barrier”), the ingredients in sunscreen are broken down more quickly when irradiated (they are less photostable). Not to belabour the point, but because most people will choose sunscreen over sunblock for aesthetic reasons, it is vital to apply it in the quantity and with the frequency recommended.

The EWG report claims that there is “some evidence” linking sunscreen usage with an increased risk of melanoma. This “some” is spotty at best and can more reasonably be explained by the false protection issue discussed above. People who use sunscreen likely spend more time in the sun because they feel protected, but most people are using sunscreen incorrectly (not enough, not often enough) and so do suffer greater effects of sun exposure. This is not a direct link to sunscreen, but to incorrect usage of sunscreen.

Another concern highlighted in the EWG report is that sunscreen will reduce vitamin D absorption. Vitamin D from the sun is very important, so if this is a concern for you (even though there is a lack of evidence for it), there are vitamin D supplements, but please – if you think you need to supplement your vitamin D intake, go to your doctor and get tested first, then get her recommendation for a product and a dosage. Don’t just buy some vitamin D pills from your local drug store and start popping them like candy, as most people do with vitamin supplements. You can overdose on vitamins; they’re not innocuous.

The EWG report cites the ingredient retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) as a primary concern because “available data from an FDA study indicate that…when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, [it] may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.” The problem is that the FDA study of retinyl palmitate in mice is both inconclusive and incomplete (it will be completed and peer-reviewed in the next year or so). Reason suggests that in light of the lack of evidence, it would be more dangerous to avoid the use of sunscreen than to use sunscreen containing retinyl palmitate.

Retinyl palmitate is a very common “anti-aging” ingredient and is found in most skin care and beauty products. It is not, however, a necessary ingredient for sunscreen’s effectiveness. If it is a concern for you, then choose a sunscreen that does not contain retinyl palmitate. Problem solved.

The EWG report also cites the ingredient oxybenzone as a potential hormone disruptor. (More information on hormone disruptors exists than I can synthesize here, so I would suggest doing your own research if you are interested. Check out science and medical sites/books rather than “health” sites/books). Oxybenzone is an ingredient in some sunscreens and, again, most skin care and beauty products. It is also ubiquitous in our environment. Studies are inconclusive as to the health effects associated with oxybenzone, stating such effects as unknown and requiring more research. As with retinyl palmitate, good sense says that you should not avoid sunscreen due to the presence of oxybenzone because evidence for negative health effects is so lacking, but you can certainly choose a product that does not contain it. Again, problem solved.

The Environmental Working Group tends to be overly cautious and even at times alarmist; they discount far too many ingredients as harmful, hazardous, or risky based on false or inconclusive data. Running around like a Chicken Little knock-off suggesting that sunscreen will give you cancer is not productive. As I said, the EWG sunscreen report is not fraudulent, but it (and the media reports on it) does instill a little too much fear in the general public.

As any brochure on sun exposure will tell you, avoiding the sun and wearing protective clothing is the best way to protect against harmful UVA and UBV radiation. Your next best bet is sunblock (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide). If the aesthetic of that doesn’t appeal to you, then a broad spectrum/double-barrier (UVA/UVB) sunscreen will offer adequate protection if you wear enough of it and re-apply it often.

Check out the EWG report for some good sunscreen/sunblock recommendations, but if you’re going to read the whole report, take it with a grain of salt keeping in mind the things discussed here. And, as always, do your own (good) research.

“Torontonamo Bay”

Toronto just finished hosting the G20 Summit, which literally lasted about eight hours in our city. The meeting got started at around 9am on Sunday and by 5pm leaders were already on their way out of town. An eight-hour meeting sure cost a whole lot and wreaked a whole lot of havoc.

I was glued to live news coverage on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday I skipped out on plans and watched the news from about 5pm until midnight. On Sunday, after participating in the completely peaceful, happy, and fun bike rally protest for a couple of hours, I was glued to the TV again from about 5:30pm until 11pm. I want to say that CP24 did an amazing job…for those two days…covering the vandalizing and police standoffs. It would have been nice if they had also provided wall-to-wall, commercial-free coverage of the demonstrations that took place all week—thousands of people in the days before the summit peacefully demonstrating on the streets of Toronto, getting their message out. That wasn’t so interesting, you see, because there were no assholes lighting police cars on fire.

Where were the media for the “Shout Out For Global Justice,” which took place at Massey Hall and featured Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, and Maude Barlow (among others)? And when Naomi Klein led the entire audience on a peaceful walk to the temporary “tent city” at Allen Gardens in solidarity with the homeless, where were the media? And when Allen Gardens became a peaceful dance party? That wasn’t so interesting to the media since there were no assholes smashing store windows.

What occurred this past weekend in Toronto was nothing short of a clusterfuck. These meetings should not be held in densely populated urban settings. They should not cost, for two days, what the United Nations spends in an entire year. They should be held in places that are already fortified and secure enough to protect the heads of state that reside in them—the White House, Parliament Hill, Downing Street, the Palace…or the freakin’ UN! And they should not pick the pockets of cities, small-business owners, and residents when it’s the federal government making the decisions.

There’s a lot to say about the G20, the politics, and what happened in Toronto on the weekend. There is a vast echo chamber now and there’s little chance I’ll say something that hasn’t already been said. Except for one thing.

Yesterday there was another demonstration, an extremely peaceful and massive “jail solidarity” demo for the 900+ people who were arrested and detained in the makeshift detention centre. I heard two or three people who were interviewed on the news refer to the detainment facility as “Torontonamo Bay.” And today I read the report of Cameron Fenton, a 24-year-old who was arrested and detained for 17 hours; he referred to the detention centre as “tantamount to torture.”

No one is denying that the conditions at the detention facility were bad—they probably were terrible. I would have been miserable if I had had to stay there for even 3 hours, let alone 24. I would likely be complaining about it to anyone who would listen. I might even be seeking legal representation. But let’s be reasonable and respectful. There are innocent people at Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities overseas who have been held—without charges, without lawyers, without habeas corpus—for many, many years. There are innocent people in these facilities (and some who are likely not innocent) who have been tortured. Truly tortured. To compare your treatment for 12, 17, or 24 hours at a makeshift detainment facility in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to a military-run torture centre that exists in a legal no-man’s land is completely ignorant. It’s akin to comparing Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, or anyone besides Hitler, to Hitler. It’s like Gretchen Carlson comparing her job as a talk-show host to that of the President of the United States.

People who have been held in a legal abyss and who have truly been tortured would likely have a thing or two to say about your experience versus theirs. So no more of this “Torontonamo Bay” and “tantamount to torture” bullshit. If you want to have your issues taken seriously, then be serious.

Is the film Precious racist? Parsing Ishmael Reed’s argument

CAUTION: This post will contain spoilers about the film Precious.

There is a ‘controversy’ over whether or not the Oscar-nominated film Precious (based on the novel Push written by Sapphire) is racist. I place the word controversy in quotation marks because I’m not entirely convinced it is a true controversy; I think it’s more of an overblown media contrivance. A couple of people wrote a couple of articles accusing the movie of being racist, and these articles then got repeated and appropriated and regurgitated in several different media (including blogs).

The other morning I tuned in to the CBC Radio 1 show Q hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. At the top of the show he hosted a debate between the writer of one of these articles, Ishmael Reed, and Cameron Bailey, a writer and the programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival. It should be said, because it’s an important nugget, that both of these men are black. (I’ll use the terms black and white, adopting Ishmael Reed’s usage.) Also, most of the actors in Precious, the director and main producer of the film, the author of the novel it is based on, and many of the film’s financiers are black.

I’m actually not writing this to weigh in heavily on whether or not the movie is racist. I’m more interested in the phenomenon of creating false ‘both-sides’ dichotomies. There is an effort in the media to appear fair and balanced (no evocation of Fox ‘News’ intended) by finding someone to argue ‘the other side’ of an issue that does not rightly have another side. For example, when celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo missions and the moon landing, it’s not necessary to balance out an interview with NASA scientists by hosting a conspiracy theorist who claims the moon landings were a hoax.

Furthermore—and this is the nut—if you are going to report on (or create!) a controversy, then have enough integrity to vet your guests.

Jian Ghomeshi and/or his producers at Q decided to have on one of the two men who created all the ballyhoo over Precious, Ishmael Reed, presumably without checking to see if maybe he’s a bit…eccentric. (Really I wanted to write nutjob-crazy-ass-freakazoid-hate-filled-bigot, but I’m trying to be polite and at least give this guy the benefit of the doubt. For now.)

If you read Reed’s screed (ha!) on Counterpunch, you may have little doubt that this man, far from being a balanced individual with apt intellectual opinions, is clearly a bigot.  He comes off as a racist (he doesn’t like white people or black people who aren’t the right kind of black), a sexist and misogynist (he displays great disdain and disrespect for women), and a homophobe (he is baffled that a gay character could be presented positively). Also, I don’t know if there is a term for this (sizeist?), but he seems to dislike obese people. Oh, and he questions the veracity of incest/rape victims, is a conspiracy theorist, seems to be a prude (expressing disdain for the prurience of thongs), is a bad writer, and is just a plain old bad arguer (he throws up mountains of non-evidence having nothing to do with his premise and often employs logical fallacies, his favourites being ad hominem and straw-man attacks).

These are heavy claims I’m making. Racist, misogynist, homophobe, conspiracy theorist. They are of course my opinion based on his words. But let’s take a look at the evidence and you can decide for yourself. I’m going to parse Reed’s screed:

“Seeing that no one had supplied women with panties that were meant to be visible while wearing low cut jeans, [Sarah Siegel] captured the niche and made a fortune. With five million dollars, she invested in the film Precious….”

This displays the aforementioned disdain for the prurience of thongs, and also the fact that Reed is a horrible arguer. How the hell does the fact that an investor made her fortune by selling underwear prove that the movie Precious is racist?

He also goes after Sapphire (choosing to out her real name, showing disrespect for her choice to have a pen name):

“…she joined in on the lynching of five black and Hispanic boys…. She made money, and became famous. They were innocent!”

This is a completely separate issue from the movie, but Reed seems to enjoy using ad-hominem and straw-man attacks. This particular personal attack seems to be setting up the argument that because Sapphire wrote a poem about a case in which five men confessed to and were convicted of brutally beating and raping a woman in Central Park—men who later recanted their confessions and turned out to be not guilty—she is a bad person and a racist and that her book and the movie based on it are also bad and racist. I suppose that’s his not-entirely-logical argument.

A case analogous to the West Memphis Three, this is an excellent argument for tidying up the justice system and against the death penalty (there was no “lynching,” by the way—this is just a term Reed misleadingly employs). What it’s not is in any way related to the movie Precious, the book Push, or the supposed premise of Reed’s article.

(For those interested here’s a synopsis of the Central Park Jogger case Reed refers to.)

Okay, back to the Reed screed:

“Precious, about a pregnant 350 pound illiterate black teenager….”

Keep in mind this first mention of Precious’s weight—it’ll come up again. And again. And again.

“…the image of the black male as sexual predator has created a profit center for over one hundred years….”

I won’t argue that there is a problem in society with the demonization of black men (and non-whites in general), but I will argue that this movie is not about Precious’s father, who rapes her at least twice and impregnates her twice. The father is not a character. He’s not meant to be. He is not given a back story or even a face. He is symbolic. He is symbolic of a sad and true fact of life—that men abuse, rape, and oppress women with shocking and alarming regularity.

“But politicians, the KKK, Nazis, film, television, etc, had done the black male as a rapist to death.”

Okay, I understand this feeling—I really do. I’m queer and I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another movie in which the gay character has to commit suicide, or be killed, or kill someone in the end. But if we strip away the colour, it is again a sad and true fact that men rape and abuse women with shocking and alarming regularity. It’s not limited to race. I don’t know how proportionate the representation of white versus black men as rapists is to the actual numbers of white and black men in the world. It likely is disproportionate.

However, this is a story about an uneducated girl living in the poorest of poor environments. This is a movie about poverty and what it does to people. And like it or not, the poorest people in most North American cultures are often black, aboriginal, Hispanic—in other words, non-white. Why? That is the real question.

“… which they saw as selling a black film to white audiences (the people to whom CNN and MSNBC are referring to [sic] when they invoke the phrase ‘The American People.’)”

Ummm…where’s the evidence for that? Do you have proof that CNN and MSNBC mean ‘whiteys’ when they refer to “The American People”? If you state something as fact, you’ve got to have proof. If you don’t have proof, then you have to qualify your statement as opinion.

“Three standing ovations… at Sundance convinced some of the business people that although white audiences might decline to support films that show cerebral blacks [such as] The Great Debaters…they would probably enjoy a film in which blacks were shown as incestors and pedophiles.”

While I do know that “incestors” is not a word, I do not know the intricate political, social, and psychological reasons that someone would choose to see Precious and not The Great Debaters. I know that the financial success of movies rides on promotion and hype—how much money is put into promoting them. I don’t think I saw a single preview or commercial for The Great Debaters, but I saw many for Precious. This doesn’t answer the question of why a studio would put money behind one movie and not another, but that’s a question for the studio heads I believe.

Here I will point out that Reed obsessively attacks Oprah Winfrey throughout his screed, who (along with Tyler Perry and others) is an executive producer* of Precious. While Reed seems to indicate that Winfrey’s backing of the movie makes her an evil tool of white power, he says nothing of her also producing The Great Debaters. I guess that’s inconvenient to Reed’s chosen paradigm.

“…when Lionsgate’s co-presidents for theatrical marketing…said of Precious, ‘There is simply a gold mine of opportunity here,’ they were on the money. In an interview [Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival] said that [Precious] might hit ‘a cultural chord’ because of all of the discussion about race prompted by the election of President Obama.”

Well, yeah. Sorry, dude, but welcome to the world of business and marketing. That’s it! It’s all about cynicism, manipulation, chasing the dollar, and using any political means necessary to rake in more and more of these dollars. I don’t particularly like that seedy world, but that’s what happens for every movie; it’s not some grand racist conspiracy—it’s business. The same thing happens whether a phone company tries to sell you a plan, a record label tries to sell you an artist, or Coca-Cola tries to sell you a Coke.

Reed doesn’t seem to have a firm hold on exactly what he’s arguing. Does he think the people who made the movie (black people) are racist? Does he think the people who financially backed the movie (some black, some white) are racist? Or does he just hate business and marketing? I’d be behind Reed if he were arguing that the money-grubbing politicking of marketing is icky. But that’s not his contention. He contends that the movie is racist, yet he keeps coughing up as ‘proof’ things such as the fact that the film had a marketing strategy.

Reed goes on to say that after learning about this marketing plan he wanted Sarah Siegel to change the name of her panty company from So Low to How Low. This is the second reference to the fact that one of the investors in the movie made her fortune from selling low-rise underwear. It’s also worth noting that Reed refers to Siegel as “Sarah” every time he mentions her, which is a clear if subtle indication of disrespect. The journalistic tendency is to refer to people by their last name in articles.

I have many favourite parts of Reed’s screed, but this is definitely among them—an entire paragraph describing Siegel’s appearance:

“…a manicured, buffed Sarah, who doesn’t go lightly on the eye shadow, looks better [than some right-wing, racist wingnuts Reed compares her to]. She is salmon colored and though middle-aged wears baby doll clothes and if you Google her name, Sarah Siegel, along with ‘images’ you’ll find her posing in photos some of which have blacks smooching her [sic].”

Really, need I say anything in response to this? It pretty much speaks for itself.

Okay, just one thing!

‘I would like to propose that the movie Precious is racist. My proof is that one of the financial backers of the film wears eye shadow and baby-doll clothes (whatever that means) and has even been photographed being “smooched” by black people. I rest my case.’

“Sarah Siegel has joined an innovative marketing plan that couples Obama’s name with the most extreme of sexual crimes.”

Whatthefuck? Somehow now Siegel, an investor in the movie, is being credited with creating the film’s marketing plan, and this marketing plan couples Barack Obama with rape?!?! Reed is the original Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound! The leap he makes here is not only a complete trouncing of logic, but I’d go as far as saying that it’s potentially libelous.

Reed quotes Armond White, the other guy whose article arguing that Precious is racist has been bandied about, repeated, appropriated, and regurgitated. In his article White compares Precious to Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film based on the novel The Clansman, which promoted white supremacy and depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.

This alone should be an erratic enough statement to discount Armond White’s article. But not only does Reed endorse and freely quote from it, he one-ups it, saying that Precious makes the director of Birth of a Nation “look like a progressive.” Yikes. Seriously. I need a coffee….

Okay, I’m back. Sigh, just in time for Reed’s denial of rape and incest, or at least his seeming preference for keeping such things tidily under the rug.

“Indeed, the business model for both the book [and the film]…was the black incest product, The Color Purple.”

Reed seems to deplore anyone shining a light on the fact that women and girls are raped and molested with shocking and alarming regularity. How dare someone tell a story about a woman being raped or molested!

In the Q debate Reed denies that incest occurs in the black community and lays an unfounded ad hominem attack on his arch nemesis Sarah Seigel, all in one fell swoop: “There’s probably more incest happening in Sarah Siegel’s group than in the African-American community.” I don’t know what “Sarah Siegel’s group” refers to—Siegels? Women? Financiers of films? Underwear designers? Hollywood types?

More from Reed’s article:

“But even that incest film doesn’t go as far as Precious, which shows both mother and father engaged in a sexual assault on their daughter in graphic detail….”

This is false. The scene that shows Precious being raped by her father is shocking and disturbing, but there is not much graphic detail. First of all, it’s out of focus. Secondly, it quickly dissipates into one of Precious’s escapist fantasies—her way of disconnecting from the reality of her brutal existence. The scene that insinuates the sexual assault of Precious by her mother is just that—an insinuation. It’s unambiguous, but it shows nothing.

“The naked black skinned man Carl of medium built [sic] who rapes a 350 pound daughter, who elsewhere in the film goes about flattening people with one punch….”

Definitely one of my favourite of Reed’s nonsensical yet illustrative ‘arguments.’ Here Reed alludes to the fact that a 350-pound teenager could not possibly be raped because…what? She’s too fat? He repeats this claim in the Q interview by saying, “Not only does the father rape a 350-pound woman…” and then trailing off into derisive laughter. To his credit, Ghomeshi calls him on this, asking if that fact stretches credulity. Reed does not answer the question. Not to his credit, Ghomeshi lets him get away with not answering the question.

This is vile, offensive, contemptible stuff. I can’t think of words to describe the derision I want to heap upon Reed. I want every feminist, social worker, rape or incest survivor, at-risk worker, teacher, counselor, psychologist, cognitive scientist, women’s shelter worker, V-Day warrior, women’s rights advocate, anti-violence crusader, etc. to descend upon Ishmael Reed and school him in the realities of physical/sexual violence against women and battered-woman syndrome.

Women of all shapes and sizes can be and are raped and abused with shocking and alarming regularity. To suggest that because Precious punched some kid in the face means that she could not be raped is blatantly absurd and clearly contemptuous. To suggest that she could have overpowered her attacker because she may have weighed more than him is to ignore everything we know about the psychology of abuse.

Reed goes on to refer to Precious’s father as “a vile prop,” “a person with no story and no humanity,” and quotes someone as saying that he is “the real victim of the movie.” Vile, offensive, absurd, contemptible—these words just don’t seem enough. Yes, clearly the “real” victim of the story is the rapist who isn’t given a full arc, as opposed to the illiterate, poor, chronically abused, raped, teenaged mother of two who is infected with AIDS by her rapist father. Sure thing.

As I stated earlier, Precious’s father is not meant to be a character in the movie; that’s the whole point—he’s symbolic. The story is about Precious, about the abuse and oppression of women, poor people, and minorities. The story is not about the father, his character, his motivation, his psychology, his back story. That would be another movie. Perhaps Ishmael Reed should write it. But this movie is about the victim.

I want to show respect but I can’t: Fuck you, Ishmael. Fuck you for denying that a large woman could be raped. Fuck you for deploring stories of women’s abuse. Fuck you for painting the rapist character as the victim. Check out these (U.S.) statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network):  One in six women will be sexually abused in her lifetime. Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. About 73% of rape victims know their rapists. Only 60% of sexual assaults are actually reported. And only about 6% of rapists will spend a day in jail for their crime.

So fuck you.

Hey, how about we lighten the tone with some more unproven ad hominem attacks?

TheRoot is The Washington Post’s black zine…. The zine’s black face is Henry Louis Gates, Jr…. TheRoot has provided cover for Precious probably because Gates is tight with Oprah Winfrey and wrote a kiss up book about her.”

This is an absolutely perfect example of the classic conspiracy theorist tactic: Anyone or anything that disproves your conspiracy is in on the conspiracy. The only possible reason that the “black face” (WTF?) of a black zine could support the film Precious is because the movie was promoted by Oprah Winfrey and said “black face” is a Winfrey ass-kisser. (P.S., Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is also the U.S. Commissar of African American Culture.)

Reed’s conspiracy-theorist craziness is on further exhibit in the Q debate. Reed says that the only people who praise the movie are white critics, which Cameron Bailey refutes by saying that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) showered the film with eight nominations and six awards. Reed says, “He paid for that. He gave them a million dollars. Tyler Perry did.” Incredulous, Bailey asks, “You’re saying Tyler Perry paid for those awards?” to which Reed answers, “Yeah.” Also incredulous, Jian Ghomeshi asks, “He bought the NAACP?” and Reed responds, “He gave them a million dollars.” Gotta love Cameron Bailey for realizing the absurdity of the ‘debate’ at this point, saying, “Well once we enter the realm of conspiracy theories, I have to just leave it there.”

More from Reed’s article:

“The white characters are altruistic types, there to help downtrodden black people and are among those who are to be admired.”

Maybe. I’m going to maybe allow this argument, but I’m giving it a 5% strength as it pertains to the film Precious. There are hardly any white people in the movie at all. There’s Mariah Carey’s counselor character, whose race is questioned but never discovered. Every other character is black, although Paula Patton’s teacher character Blu Rain and Lenny Kravitz’s Nurse John are “light-skinned.” More on that soon.

“According to this film, if you’re a lucky black woman, a white man will rescue you from the clutches of evil black men.”

First of all, I repeat that there is no “white man” saviour in this movie. Second, no one is “rescued” in any real sense. Precious is perhaps semi-rescued by a black (though “light-skinned”), female teacher who shows her respect and caring and provides her with an education for the first time in Precious’s life. That’s hardly an example of “a white man” rescuing her from “the clutches of evil black men.”

If Ishmael Reed has such a problem with this very real issue—the clichéd story of non-whites being rescued and/or ‘domesticated’ by whites—why hasn’t he railed against other Oscar contenders The Blind Side or Avatar?

I’m not sure what Steven Spielberg’s admission that after reading The Color Purple he wanted to rescue Celie has to do with the question of racism in Precious, but it’s hardly surprising; it’s neither a white nor solely male instinct to want to rescue people who are being abused or oppressed. I felt this way when I read Bastard Out of Carolina and I’m a white woman—so was the character (her abuser was white as well). I have felt this way during every book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen depicting abused women or children. And sadly, there are many of them.

Oh, but Reed’s Steven Spielberg jag gets better:

“…while he has yet to make a movie about the Celies among his ethnic group.”

I’m assuming that by “his ethnic group” Reed is referring to Jewish people. And I can only laugh—truly, I laughed when I read this—because Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List! A movie about the Holocaust, a genocide that killed millions of “his ethnic group,” both male and female. Oy vey.

Earlier I alluded to Reed’s obsession with not-black-enough black people and asserted that he’s a sexist, so here’s some evidence: Reed refers to Paula Patton’s character as “light-skinned” and someone “whom the camera favors.” He refers to Mariah Carey’s character as “firm” and “of the same skin tone.” That he can think of no other way to describe these women (like perhaps their acting talent?) than their physicality is telling.

More on women: Reed refers to TheRoot’s female contributors, some of whom are professors, as “the types who are using the university curriculum to get even with their fathers….”

Wow. I don’t know for sure, but I would suggest based on the evidence in this article that perhaps Reed has some mommy issues he needs to work on with a therapist. Maybe they’re daddy issues, I don’t know, but he certainly seems to have a hate-on for women. How can anyone take this man seriously when he writes things like this?

Reed then goes on a tangent for a few paragraphs trouncing TheRoot some more and bringing up The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg again. It’s boring and has nothing to do with what is supposed to be his central argument. Although to be honest, I don’t know that he really has one. He purports to argue that Precious (the film and/or its marketing campaign?) is racist, but he seems to just be using that as a front so he can hate on women and light-skinned black people and fatties and queers (wait for it).

Reed condemns Precious for being “a film in which gays are superior to black male heterosexuals.”

Uh….

Okay. Okay, I get you. I’m with you. We all know (don’t we?) that “gays” are worse than every other segment of the population. How dare anyone make a movie in which the “gays” are depicted as superior to the black male heterosexual abusive rapist child-molester?

But wait! There’s more!

“Next to the whites, the male who treats Precious and her dysfunctional friends with the most understanding is John John, the Gay [sic] male nurse. (Lee Daniels, the Gay [sic] ‘director’ of the film once ran a nursing business.)”

Yep.

Okay:

1)      Again, there are hardly any white characters in this movie.

2)      Lenny Kravitz’s character John is not gay. The movie explicitly depicts him as straight.

3)      The “light-skinned” teacher, played by Paula Patton is, however, a lesbian and her partner is a “dark-skinned” black person. Not sure how this fits into Reed’s paradigm.

4)      I don’t know why Gay is capitalized suddenly, but I like it!

5)      Lee Daniels is the director of the film. The quotation marks around “director” are Reed’s. I’m not sure why, although he seems to be implying that Daniels did not direct the film. Is it because he’s gay?

6)      I am shocked—shocked!—that a film would contain a nurse character. And a male nurse at that! Lee Daniels once apparently ran a nursing business. This is clearly a conspiracy.

But wait! There’s more (on the not-black-enough or not-the-right-kind-of-black issue)!

“In this movie Caribbean Americans are smarter than black Americans.”

Shit on a stick!! How dare they?!?! What right do Caribbean-black Americans have being in a movie anyway, but then to have the gall to appear smarter than non-Caribbean-black Americans? It’s bullshit! It’s racist! It’s a conspiracy!

At this point I can’t ascribe any factual accuracy to anything Reed says, but he claims that Oprah Winfrey has only ever had a “few titles by black male authors” as part of her book club. This may or may not be true. If it is, then perhaps the title of Reed’s screed should have been “Oprah and sexism: Why so few titles in her book club have been written by men” (I’m not putting any more creative thought into it than that). That Reed seems to be accusing Winfrey of sexism is laughable given all that he has said about women, so I’ll take a page from Cameron Bailey and just leave it there.

Now Reed launches into an extremely long ad hominem attack on Oprah Winfrey, who is an executive producer* of the movie. Reed actually quotes the writer of an unauthorized Oprah Winfrey biography, quotes a woman who attended a taping of Winfrey’s show, and contends that the “real” reason Winfrey is quitting her show is because of another unauthorized biography that isn’t even out yet. Reed’s love of the illogical, nonsensical, and unrelated ‘argument’ is here coupled with his disdain for women and overweight people: “Like her addiction to food, Oprah does well for a little while but she just can’t help herself.”

Again, what’s his argument supposed to be? The problem with responding to an article like this is that every single thing he says is ridiculous, false, and/or offensive. I’m going to skip through some of it quickly. Reed says many more absurd things, but none such that my head will explode if I don’t respond to them. Besides, they really speak for themselves.

Blah, blah, blah…some ad hominem attacks on The New York Times Magazine for liking Precious; a condemnation of the magazine for featuring Gabourey Sidibe, “the 350 pound actor in the title role,” on its cover (that’s the third reference to her weight if you’re counting); a reference to this cover story as “black exploitation;” a reference to the Times Op Ed page as the “Jim Crow Op Ed” page; a subtle conspiracy theory about the fact that Lionsgate spent money advertising in The New York Times; an ad hominem (and potentially libelous) attack on A.O. Scott; a comparison of the Oscar-winning film Monster’s Ball to porn; and a truly beyond-absurd and laughable rhetorical question: “When [Daniels] went on the set to exercise his role as ‘director’ did the white people who own the movie and provide the crew for this film call security? Hard to say.”

Mmm. Hard indeed.

Reed then starts to make what could potentially be a fair and cogent point about the lack of black voices in pop culture, art, and media, but then just can’t resist the racism and ad hominem attacks—he refers to the Times Op Ed writer Orlando Patterson as “the kind of Jamaican who has nothing but contempt for African Americans.”

Seriously, I am not making this shit up. How could anyone—anyone—read his nonsensical article and not conclude that Ishmael Reed hates black people who were born outside of the United States, hates light-skinned black people, hates women, hates overweight people, hates queers, and denigrates anyone who disagrees with him?!?!

There’s some more conspiracy theory stuff, too. Sapphire claims that Precious was a real-life person, but Reed implies that it’s not true: “Don’t you think that if such a person existed that [sic] Lionsgate wouldn’t [sic] include her in its marketing plan….” Despite your wretched grammatical construction, I do understand your rhetorical question and the answer is no—not if the real-life Precious did not want to be outed. And that’s even assuming she’s still alive. She did, after all, contract AIDS in the 1980s.

(In the Q debate Reed rehashes this, saying, “…if she were a real person, they would have brought her forth and paraded her around like a baby elephant or something.” Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t yet another anti-overweight jab.)

Hey! How about some more nonsensical ad hominem attacks? It’s been, what, two sentences since we’ve heard one? What’s that, Ishmael? An ad for Precious appeared on your AOL home page you say? Please, tell me more about AOL’s coverage of black culture and politics since it’s so closely related to the premise of your article!

“Their coverage of black culture is limited to black NFL and NBA athletes who get into trouble outside of strip clubs.”

HA! Good one!

“Sapphire says that she was a former prostitute and a victim of incest (Lee Daniels does his pity party routine during the Times’ interview)…. In 1986, she began to ‘remember things.’ (Lee Daniels also ‘remembered’ abuse by his father.)”

I doubt that any woman has ever been a prostitute or a victim of incest. But even if this ridiculous supposition were true, why on earth would she be deserving of any compassion or sympathy? And how could she possibly have gone on to be a success in life? Furthermore, we all know that people who ‘remember’ being abused as children are clearly just vengeful adults trying to punish their parents for not buying them a car when they turned 16. Life can be so cruel!

Blah, blah, blah…more stuff that has zero to do with the movie. More ad hominems. More conjecture. Actually a pretty strong case against the death penalty. Some attacks on the F word (f-f-feminists!). More attacks on Sapphire. More attacks on Sarah Siegel. More bad grammar and writing (“…whose depiction of black men is worst than those…”). More equating of Precious to Nazis and the Holocaust. (Oh, and in the Q debate Reed tells a blatant lie: “There’s a subtle eugenics message at the end of the movie about sterilizing black women.” This is just not true.)

Reed then goes on a tirade in his article personally attacking NPR’s Terry Gross for liking Precious and for allegedly being racist (though providing no evidence). This is beautiful hypocrisy; check it out:

“When whatever is bothering Ms. Gross about black men gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after her. Gross’s Syndrome.”

Sure! And when whatever is bothering Ishmael Reed about women, rape/incest victims, white people, light-skinned/Caribbean/Jamaican black people, overweight people, and queers gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after him! ISHMAELIAN-REED SYNDROME, characterized by hate-filled, balls-out bigotry!

This has been a long post, I know. Thanks for riding it out (if you did). If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do, let your opinion be known. Post comments on articles. Write to Q and any other media outlet that has Ishmael Reed on as a legitimate guest.

Most importantly, raise the level of discourse. There are real issues buried somewhere here among Reed’s trite bile. There are serious issues about black representation and about the all-too-true state of affairs for women, poor people, and minorities. It sucks that the story of Precious is about a poor, forgotten, illiterate, abused, unhealthy, teenager who has slipped through the cracks, has been chronically abused and raped, and has never been truly cared about.

It sucks, but it’s a story that is lived out again and again every day all over the world. The fact that she’s black, that her story takes place in ‘the ghetto’ in the 1980s is just the setting. The abuse of women and children, the oppression of minorities, and the damage that poverty does are all real. They’re true. They happen to people. That a disproportionate number of these people are racial and sexual minorities is also true. This fact alone is evidence of systemic societal racism and sexism; a film depicting this is not inherently racist. In fact, it may help shine a light where too long darkness has maintained the status quo.

* For accuracy’s sake, I have edited the claim that Oprah Winfrey was a “financial backer.” She is, in fact, an executive producer and I do not know if she financially backed the film.

For more:

The attacks on Precious are starting to say more about the attackers. (“… the difference between a cliché and a portrayal of genuine life will always come down to the specificity of what you’re seeing…. Several points in Reed’s essay strike me as almost perversely wrongheaded…. I think he’s talking about a different movie.”)

The controversy over Precious. (“Precious takes people who are usually only depicted as stereotypes, hated and looked down at, if looked at at all—overweight, dark-skinned Black girls and women on welfare—and shows them as they are, full humans with complexity and humanity. In this way it contributes to understanding more deeply the depths of the oppression people like them face and the impacts of those stereotypes. This is the exact opposite of minstrelsy.”)

Ishmael Reed on the Movie Precious. (“So how does Reed’s us against them binary explain the legion of black folks and black women in particular that identify with the movie’s characterization of incest and sexual abuse? Simply put, it doesn’t. That is, not unless you believe that all black folks think alike, which apparently Reed expects us—or precisely the mostly white readership of the New York Times—to believe.”)

The problem with Precious. (“How else to explain that while the film is set in 1987, no one seems outraged that so little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since? Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary.”)

She’s Not Just a Fat Aunt Jemima on a Pancake Box. (“…it sounds like Reed’s central complaint is more about the lack of other similar portrayals of non-Blacks than an ACTUAL critique of this specific movie. In fact, based on his summary of the movie in his review, I’m not even sure he’s seen the film…. In any case, who gets to decide what serves as Black ‘reality’? Ishmael Reed? Is there a review board?”)

Precious attacked in the NYTimes. (“[Ishmael Reed's editorial] is an extremely narrow attack on a very powerful and moving piece of art that truly is not about the demonization of Black men, but a work that shines a light on the many ways in which the potential and humanity of young Black women, poor women on welfare, victims of incest and abuse, victims of the American ‘educational’ system, dark-skinnned Black girls are squandered.  As the movie puts it, they are so often viewed as only as ‘Black grease to be wiped away.’”)

Precious Ignites a Debate on the Black Narrative. (“‘Black people are able to say Precious represents some of our children, but some of our children go to Yale. Child abuse is not black,’ [Sapphire] added. ‘What do you call the man in Austria who imprisoned his daughter for years?’”)

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Comments (20)  
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Secular Christmas

Every year since I’ve become politically cognizant it seems I’ve had to endure people bickering about the ‘controversy’ over Christmas. Is it a war on Christmas, as right-wing TV and radio hosts purport? Is it offensive to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” as opposed to “Merry Christmas?” Is being inclusive and saying “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” etc. a slippery slope? Is it hypocritical at best, politically or ethically untenable at worst, for non-theists to celebrate Christmas? Some non-theists don’t celebrate Christmas because of its religious connotations, and some theists think that non-Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. It’s a whole, annoying bog.

The fact is that all of the alleged controversy can be rendered irrelevant by accepting that Christmas has become largely a secular holiday.

Out of the gate let me say that of course there is certainly a contingent of religious people for whom December 25th is the birthday of Jesus Christ, and who celebrate the date as such. But generally the majority in the world who celebrate Christmas—even in countries with very few Christians—celebrate it as a secular tradition rather than a religious one.

Christmas is mostly about giving and receiving presents, eating a lot of food, getting shmammered, attending parties, and spending time with family and friends. For some, it is about all of these things and attending church. (Although in my experience I’ve found that many of the Christmas church-goers attend more out of habit, tradition, or ‘keeping up appearances’ than to worship a god. In many cases, the folks who attend mass on Christmas only go to church once or twice a year—the other being Easter.)

If the devoutly religious want Christmas to be purely about religion, then they must eschew all of the other Christmas traditions: gifts, food, lights, trees, etc. If they don’t and yet still complain about the secular ‘co-opting’ of Christmas, then they are nothing more than hypocrites.

But what is Christmas, anyway? Is it historically a purely religious, Christian celebration?

If it is true that Jesus were a real historical figure, it is the consensus of most historians and theologians based on available evidence that December 25th was not the actual date of his birth. (Most accounts place it in the spring.) December 25th was originally a Roman winter solstice festival known as Sol Invictus, which celebrated the “rebirth” of the Sun; several Sun gods were worshipped, including Sol and Mithras. Because it was already such a popular pagan holiday, it was claimed as the birthday of Jesus. Even so, celebrating the birth of Jesus was condemned and looked down upon by Christians for most of history, and Christians didn’t start celebrating Christmas as we know it until the 1800s.

The gift-giving part of Christmas—some would say the #1 Christmas tradition—was actually introduced long after the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The tradition does not derive from the three wise men in the bible, as many believe. In fact, gift exchange derived from Saturnalia, a popular Roman holiday dating to 217 BCE that celebrated the god Saturn. Saturnalia involved sacrifices, a school holiday, and, yes, the exchange of gifts.

Even if we grant the war-on-Christmas types the two lies they claim as truth (that Jesus was born on December 25th and that the gift-exchange tradition comes from the three wise men), I wonder how Jesus would feel about people celebrating his birth by literally trampling each other to death in a Walmart in order to buy the $450 video game on sale for $350.

As for that exalted symbol the Christmas tree—it is a tradition that dates to 16th century Germany. It was considered good luck to hang an evergreen at the apex of a house, and over time this morphed into having the tree inside and decorating it. The tradition immigrated to North America along with the Germans.

Traditions are what society is based on, no matter where you live in the world or what your society looks like. Traditions are mostly benign. They are also malleable and tend to change over time. And generally society changes with them. We celebrate Halloween: kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy door to door; adults dress up in costumes and parade and/or party. We do not celebrate the Celtic festival Samhain, from which Halloween is derived, warding off evil spirits by disguising ourselves as them, or slaughtering livestock and casting their bones into bonfires. (At least I hope we don’t!)

Christmas may have meant one thing once upon a time, but now it means something different. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but we can still celebrate Christmas. Even the non-religious can celebrate Christmas because it’s about tradition, merriment, nostalgia, and making new memories. It’s an excuse to get together with family and friends we don’t see very often. It’s fun to see the excitement and awe in children’s eyes. The food, candy, and chocolate are great and some people even like Christmas music. The sweaters are mostly bad, and feelings about egg nog are split.

As for me, I have grown increasingly weary of Christmas. It seems the magic goes out of it when you’re no longer a child and don’t have children in your life. But it’s the crass commercialism and pure gaudiness that I abhor more than anything. (But if that doesn’t bother you and you still have some names to cross off your shopping list, may I suggest The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by the brain behind the atheist bus campaign, Ariane Sherine.)

Christmas is no Halloween, but if I remove the religiosity and the crass commercialism, it’s a pretty nice holiday. For whatever reason The Sound of Music is always on TV this time of the year, and that’s enough for me.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Human Rights Day, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year, Happy Omisoka, Happy St. Lucia Day, Happy Winter Solstice, Merry X-mas …and Happy any-other-December-holiday-you-may-celebrate-that-I-may-have-inadvertently-left-out!

A few quotations from well-known scientists, skeptics, and atheists on this subject:

“But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too. So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” – Richard Dawkins

“It seems to me to be obvious that everything we value in Christmas—giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it—all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world.” – Sam Harris

“My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O’Reillys of the world don’t even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery ‘Happy Holidays!’” – PZ Meyers

A little perspective

As always, Rachel Maddow brings some much-needed perspective—this time to the criticism of Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Gotta love her.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/ns/msnbc_tv-rachel_maddow_show#33249779

The truth is simpler than you think

When a member of the U.S. congress asserts a claim about the current health care reform Bill but President Barack Obama asserts that this claim is wrong, there is a very simple way to figure out who is lying: read the bill.

When certain people assert the claim that The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation is a call for the “annihilation of the Jewish State” but the writers and endorsers of the declaration assert that this claim is wrong, there is a very simple way to figure out who is lying: read the declaration.

People who spread lies and misinformation do so because they know they can get away with it. Society has become so lazy and complacent that we won’t even bother seeking out the truth. We choose our side, we blindly support its leaders, and that’s that.

Well on these two counts I’ve done the work for you. You don’t even have to Google. Just click the links. I’m sorry I can’t read them for you; you will have to do some work. But to make it even easier for you to read the Toronto Declaration, I will paste it below. Now you don’t even have to inconvenience your index finger to click the link. (In the case of the Bill, it’s too long to paste here. However, if you’re too lazy to read it yet would still like to make assertions about it, then you can actually listen to it here.)

Below is the full text of the Toronto Declaration (emphasis mine). And here is a video clip and a transcript of Naomi Klein explaining what the Toronto Declaration is, why it is, and elucidating the misinformation campaign that has sprung up around it: Naomi Klein on Democracy Now.

The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation

An Open Letter to the Toronto International Film Festival:

September 2, 2009

As members of the Canadian and international film, culture and media arts communities, we are deeply disturbed by the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to host a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. We protest that TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.

In 2008, the Israeli government and Canadian partners Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation launched “Brand Israel,” a million dollar media and advertising campaign aimed at changing Canadian perceptions of Israel. Brand Israel would take the focus off Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its aggressive wars, and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture. An article in Canadian Jewish News quotes Israeli consul general Amir Gissin as saying that Toronto would be the test city for a promotion that could then be deployed around the world. According to Gissin, the culmination of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (Andy Levy-Alzenkopf, “Brand Israel set to launch in GTA,” Canadian Jewish News, August 28, 2008.)

In 2009, TIFF announced that it would inaugurate its new City to City program with a focus on Tel Aviv. According to program notes by Festival co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey, “The ten films in this year’s City to City programme will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity.”

The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada.

Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.

We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.

This letter was drafted by the following ad hoc committee:

Udi Aloni, filmmaker, Israel; Elle Flanders, filmmaker, Canada; Richard Fung, video artist, Canada; John Greyson, filmmaker, Canada; Naomi Klein, writer and filmmaker, Canada; Kathy Wazana, filmmaker, Canada; Cynthia Wright, writer and academic, Canada; b h Yael, film and video artist, Canada.

Endorsed By:

Ahmad Abdalla, Filmmaker, Egypt
Hany Abu-Assad, Filmmaker, Palestine
Mark Achbar, Filmmaker, Canada
Zackie Achmat, AIDS activist, South Africa
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Filmmaker, Jerusalem
Anthony Arnove, Publisher and Producer, USA
Ruba Atiyeh, Documentary Director, Lebanon
Joslyn Barnes, Writer and Producer, USA
Harry Belafonte, Musician/Actor, USA
John Berger, Author, France
Walter Bernstein, Screenwriter/Film Producer, USA
Dionne Brand, Poet/Writer, Canada
Daniel Boyarin, Professor, USA
Judith Butler, Professor, USA
David Byrne, Musician, USA
Noam Chomsky, Professor, USA
Julie Christie, Actor, USA
Guy Davidi Director, Israel
Na-iem Dollie, Journalist/Writer, South Africa
Igor Drljaca, Filmmaker, Canada
Eve Ensler, Playwright, Author, USA
Eyal Eithcowich, Director, Israel
Lynne Fernie, Filmmaker and Programmer, Canada
Sophie Fiennes, Filmmaker, UK
Peter Fitting, Professor, Canada
Jane Fonda, Actor and Author, USA
Danny Glover, Filmmaker and Actor, USA
Noam Gonick, Director, Canada
Malcolm Guy, Filmmaker, Canada
Rawi Hage, Writer, Canada
Anne Henderson, Filmmaker, Canada
Mike Hoolboom, Filmmaker, Canada
Annemarie Jacir, Filmmaker, Palestine
Gordon Jackson, Jazz Musician, South Africa
Fredric Jameson, Literary Critic, USA
Juliano Mer Khamis, Filmmaker, Jenin/Haifa
Bonnie Sherr Klein Filmmaker, Canada
Joy Kogawa, Writer, Canada
Paul Laverty, Producer, UK
Min Sook Lee, Filmmaker, Canada
Paul Lee, Filmmaker, Canada
Yael Lerer, publisher, Tel Aviv
Mark Levine, Professor, USA
Jack Lewis, Filmmaker, South Africa
Ken Loach, Filmmaker, UK
Arab Lotfi, Filmmaker, Egypt/Lebanon
Kyo Maclear, Author, Toronto
Mahmood Mamdani, Professor, USA
Fatima Mawas, Filmmaker, Australia
Anne McClintock, Professor, USA
Tessa McWatt, Author, Canada and UK
Viggo Mortensen, Actor, USA
Cornelius Moore, Film Distributor, USA
Yousry Nasrallah, Director, Egypt
Joan Nestle, Writer, USA
Rebecca O’Brien, Producer, UK
Pratibha Parmar, Producer/Director, UK
Anand Patwardhan, Documentary Film Maker, India
Jeremy Pikser, Screenwriter, USA
John Pilger, Filmmaker, UK
Shai Carmeli Pollak, Filmmaker, Israel
Ian Iqbal Rashid, Filmmaker, Canada
Judy Rebick, Professor, Canada
David Reeb, Artist, Tel Aviv
B. Ruby Rich, Critic and Professor, USA
Wallace Shawn, Playwright, Actor, USA
Eyal Sivan, Filmmaker and Scholar, Paris/London/Sderot
Elia Suleiman, Fimmlaker, Nazareth/Paris/New York
Eran Torbiner, Filmmaker, Israel
Alice Walker, Writer, USA
Thomas Waugh, Professor, Canada
Christian Wiener Freso, President – Union of Peruvian Filmmakers, Peru
Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director Women Make Movies, USA
Howard Zinn, Writer, USA
Slavoj Zizek, Professor, Slovenia

(These are only some of the over 1,500 people who have signed this declaration.)

Lies about Canadian health care

Fear: Why is it working?

As a rational Canadian watching the completely irrational American ‘debate’ on health care these past few months, I would almost find it almost humourous if it weren’t so infuriating.

Here are some of the lies that the anti-reformers are telling about proposed health care reform: You won’t get to choose your doctor. There will be a government bureaucrat standing between you and your doctor. Grandma will be euthanized if she gets sick. Health care will be rationed. Everyone will be forced to pay for abortions, sex-change operations, and health care for illegal aliens. “Death panels”?!?!

But people are believing it. Anti-reformers have launched a campaign of outright lies and absurdities, and a lot of people are believing it. Why?

Why are the fear tactics quashing rational debate about health care? Because appeals to emotion generally trump appeals to logic. (It’s the bane of a rationalist’s existence.) And the most powerfully motivating emotion is fear. Fear is our most primal emotion; survival is linked to it.

I don’t know about all world cultures, but certainly most western cultures are uncomfortable with death. We don’t like to discuss it, and we don’t know how to handle it when we (or someone we care about) are confronted with it.

There has long been a campaign in the American federal government to encourage Americans to make living wills and have end-of-life-care discussions with their doctors. It’s not new. The Bush administration advocated it. It’s a good idea. It’s a smart idea. It’s an important idea. People should have all of their wishes honoured when their inevitable end comes, and those wishes cannot be honoured if they’re not known. Therefore, they should have a living will. And they should be able to make informed decisions about what measures they would like taken (or not taken) at the end of their life. Therefore, they should talk to their doctors about it.

This idea of having living wills and end-of-life-care discussions with doctors was included in ‘Obamacare’ because it’s a good idea and a smart idea. It is, by no means a new idea. In ‘Obamacare,’ as it has been proposed, no American will have to pay for this out of pocket—it will be covered by the government.

When the American public learned of this, compounded by the scare tactics of the anti-reformers (“death panels”), they freaked out. Suddenly they were being forced to confront the idea of their own mortality. That’s scary. Even after millions of years of brain evolution, existential fear trumps logic and reason.

Fear is also contagious. This is another mechanism of evolutionary biology. Survival of a species requires signalling danger to others and being receptive to danger signals, even subtle ones like dilating pupils.

So fear of death is one culprit. Others include fear of change and losing the things they have, fear of diminished freedom of choice, and fear of government. I understand that people don’t trust the government, but it’s selective. Americans currently trust the government to fight its wars, to keep traffic moving, to catch and prosecute criminals, to educate their children, to help them when they need it (social assistance, food stamps, employment counselling), and so on.

There are very good examples of the American government providing health care, and all work very well (although not without problems): Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for the very poor, the Veterans’ Association for veterans, the Department of Defense for soldiers, and the federal government for all members of congress provide the best health care in America. Anti-reformers know that people like and trust these systems of health care, so they are including them in their scare tactics, telling people that health care reform will take away Medicare or veterans’ health care.

While people are chanting “no government in health care” they are simultaneously chanting “hands off my Medicare!” using selective ignorance to deny that Medicare is government-run health care.

The truth about U.S. health care

Again, as an outsider, I see the ‘debate’ about health care in the U.S. as patently ridiculous. I know enough about the current American system to know that most of what anti-reformers are yelling about are railing against already exist in their current system.

“I don’t want some bureaucrat standing between me and my doctor!” or “I won’t be able to choose my doctor!” are two that come to mind. Insurance company executives currently stand in the way of Americans and their doctors, and their choices are already limited.

If an American is lucky enough to be able to afford a health care plan, or have a job that provides one, and if she goes to a doctor or hospital not on her insurance company’s ‘in-network provider’ list, then she’ll likely be paying for it herself. An in-network provider is one contracted by the insurer for agreed-upon rates. An out-of-network provider is one not contracted with the insurer. If Americans go to a doctor or hospital that is ‘in-network’ then they will pay less than if they go to an out-of-network doctor or hospital. In some cases they will have to foot the entire bill because the insurance company may refuse to pay for out-of network services. So if you’re an American who is unconscious and being rushed to the hospital, you’d better regain consciousness long enough to tell people which insurance company-approved hospital to take you to.

People in the current American health care system can be denied coverage by their insurers for pre-existing conditions, or denied reimbursement of drugs not approved by their insurer. Doctors and nurses spend a good part of their day on the phone with insurance companies to make sure that certain treatments and drugs are covered by their patient’s health care plan (often they are not). Sick people are often turned away by a hospital and told to go to another one because that hospital isn’t on their insurance provider’s pre-approved list. And yet some believe that they currently have free choice, that no one is standing between them and their doctor?

We keep hearing that America has the best health care system in the world. It’s true that the U.S. spends more (by all measures) than every other country. In fact, it is the most expensive in the world. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve bought themselves the best system. In fact, the World Health Organization ranks France, Switzerland, Britain, Canada, and Japan higher than the U.S. in health care. The U.S. ranks 37th. Forty-six million Americans can’t afford health care. Seventy-five percent of those who file for bankruptcy because of medical costs had insurance when they got sick and went bankrupt anyway. The system is run by huge health insurance corporations that make enormous profits off of denying care to patients.

And this is the system that anti-reformers are fighting, fighting, to keep.

The truth about Canadian health care

I live in Canada and I am appalled (and a little naïvely surprised) at the lies being bandied about regarding the Canadian health care system. In Canada we have universal, single-payer, non-profit health care called Medicare. It is a single-payer system: The government pays the medical bills, but doctors and hospitals are private and independent. The provincial governments and the federal government are responsible for providing non-profit health insurance to all citizens—they pay for it, they don’t run it. And citizens pay no deductibles or co-payments in most cases (some medications and treatments are not covered or are only partially covered).

As a Canadian, if I get sick I go to my doctor (any doctor of my choosing!), I get diagnosed, I get prescribed some medication or treatment, and I (hopefully) get better. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I don’t have to pay for it. If I have an accident while biking to work, I am taken to the emergency room, I get emergency treatment or surgery, and I (hopefully) get better. Oh, and I don’t have to pay for it. (Actually, I may have to pay for some of the prescription drugs and for the ambulance, which is dumb, but it’s never thousands or even hundreds of dollars.)

Canadians do not have to fight with insurance companies (or the government) for reimbursement. We are not denied reimbursement so that insurance companies can increase their profit margin. We do not go bankrupt from medical bills. We are not denied care because of pre-existing conditions (or for any reason). We do not have to suffer from illnesses or injuries because we cannot afford medical care. Canadian doctors and administrators do not have to waste precious time fighting with insurance companies, or turn patients away because they are not ‘in-network.’ Drug prices are negotiated by the government with the pharmaceutical companies, which keeps costs down. Doctors are reimbursed monthly by the government, which means no time-consuming paperwork for thousands of different insurance companies. (In the U.S. which has between 1,000 and 1,500 different insurance companies, about 30% of health care costs are purely administrative—dealing with all the paperwork for insurance company reimbursements.)

Why is it that Canada pays less for a better system? In Canada, medical care is a basic human right; it is not for profit. Health care is not a market. Therefore, it is not motivated by companies trying to make as much money as they can. We don’t have bloated administrative costs, high-paid insurance company executives, ridiculous bonuses, and millions of dollars spent on marketing. It is a not-for-profit system.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals. We know now that it is bad economics.”

Canada pays for more hospital days and doctor visits per capita than the U.S., but spends 40% less. We pay medical personnel less, our equipment and services cost less, the government negotiates drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and the government is responsible for financing health care through its budget so therefore must keep its costs down.

In Canada, general health insurance is not tied to employment, so you’re free to quit your job and change jobs without having to fear, “What if I get sick or hurt?” And health care is not age- or prior condition-based. My grandma died in December. She was 86 years old. When she was 78 years old she fell and broke her hip. She had hip-replacement surgery immediately and recovered nicely. When she was 86 years old she fell and broke her hip again. She was rushed to the hospital and had hip-replacement surgery the next day. Mortality rates from hip-replacement surgery increase exponentially the older you get, and my gramma remained in the hospital due to complications. She was treated with the utmost care and concern. She had many tests, many treatments, many drugs. She got well enough to be moved to the rehabilitation ward and we thought she’d be coming home soon, but she took a turn for the worse and ended up in palliative care. Gramma died in the hospital after just over a month, but never was she denied care. The doctors and nurses always did everything they could to heal her, make her better and, at the end, to make sure she was comfortable. The only thing we had to pay for was her phone.

Canada’s health care system is not perfect by any means. It is sadly true that there are wait times in the Canadian system. But it is a problem that has improved exponentially over the years due to better administration and management. If you require surgery and waiting a while is not life-threatening (for example, cataract surgery), then yes you may have to wait a couple of months. But if you require essential, life-saving surgery, then you won’t have to wait at all.

There is a Canadian woman (from my aunt’s town, no less!) making the rounds on American talk shows condemning the Canadian system because she required brain surgery and went to the States for it. This woman has been thoroughly debunked (see here, and here, and here, among other places).

Shona Holmes claims that she was diagnosed with brain cancer and needed emergency surgery, but was forced onto a waiting list so she went the States for her life-saving surgery. The truth is that Shona Holmes did not have cancer, she had a benign cyst, which is not life threatening. She probably would have had to wait two or three months in the Canadian system. But instead she went to the U.S., mortgaged her house, and paid $100,000 out of pocket. Had her non-life-threatening benign cyst been a life-threatening malignant cancerous tumour, the Canadian health care system would have provided Shona Holmes with surgery immediately, and she wouldn’t have had to pay one red cent. But because it was a non-life-threatening benign cyst, she was put on a short waiting list, freaked out, went to the States, and mortgaged her future.

Yes there are wait times in Canada, but nobody waits for emergency surgery.

The ways in which our health care system has deteriorated over the years are ways in which it is being made more like the American system. Things that used to be covered (eye doctor, physiotherapy) are not covered any longer. So if you don’t have benefits from your job and you don’t have money, then you cannot afford the kind of health care that someone with money and/or benefits can afford. It’s turning into a two-tier system that can cause disparities between classes. And Canadians abhor it.

Not every person can be privately wealthy—the world economy wouldn’t be able to support that—so we need services like public transportation, education, and health care. Countries like Canada and the United States are supposed to be meritocracies; that is, people’s worth is supposed to be derived from their abilities and not their wealth or lineage. A system wherein only the wealthy can afford education and health care breeds a classist society with an underclass that is treated as such because the people in it don’t come from money and have jobs that aren’t valued as much as those in the upper class.

But I digress.

Despite its imperfections, inadequacies, and increasing classist structure, Canadian Medicare is still a universal health care system that ensures no Canadian will ever go bankrupt, lose their house, go into debt, become homeless, or die because they have an accident or get sick.

Not too long ago Tommy Douglas was voted “The Greatest Canadian” by a national poll. Tommy Douglas is Keifer Sutherland’s grandfather. But this isn’t why he was voted the greatest Canadian. He was voted the greatest Canadian because he is the man who ushered in our universal health care system.

A friend of mine once said that if anything were to ever cause a revolution in Canada, it would be the government trying to take away our universal health care. I think he was right.

Further reading:

Let’s start with the obvious: America has not only the worst but the dumbest health care system in the developed world. It’s become a black leprosy eating away at the American experiment — a bureaucracy so insipid and mean and illogical that even our darkest criminal minds wouldn’t be equal to dreaming it up on purpose.

The system doesn’t work for anyone. It cheats patients and leaves them to die, denies insurance to 47 million Americans, forces hospitals to spend billions haggling over claims, and systematically bleeds and harasses doctors with the specter of catastrophic litigation. Even as a mechanism for delivering bonuses to insurance-company fat cats, it’s a miserable failure: Greedy insurance bosses who spent a generation denying preventive care to patients now see their profits sapped by millions of customers who enter the system only when they’re sick with incurably expensive illnesses.

Quotation of the week

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”  – John Stuart Mill

Quotation of the week

“Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything, doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you.”  – Dara O’Briain

Just like Hitler

There’s an instructor at my gym who kind of shouts at us and makes us count down. If we don’t count down, she starts again at the beginning. She also makes us respond when she asks, “Can you feel it!?” She will yell it over and over again until we all respond. Whether we can feel it or not, we have to respond “yes!” It’s not as if we can say, “Sort of. Not really. Maybe I will tomorrow.” She’s such a Nazi. No, in fact, she’s Hitler!

I think the people who run NGOs are probably just using their socio-political humanitarian work as fronts to impose their own idealist “world peace” agenda. They’re all communists.

If you don’t wear deodorant in the summer time, you are imposing your disgusting body odour on others against their will and you deserve to be killed, you stinky Nazi.

Sometimes my cat scratches at my legs when his nails are too long and it hurts! Hitler cat.

When there is a line-up—stand in it! Don’t walk to the front as if you own the world. People who do that are no better than Hitler.

In my country, if I get sick or have an accident and break something, I can go to the doctor or hospital and get fixed. And I don’t have to pay for it. Clearly the Canadian system is just like Nazi Germany. Bunch of commies.

Sometimes when I get a coffee from the coffee shop in the lobby of my office building they don’t fill the cup to the top. Frickin’ Nazis.

Bob Ross was a painter who had a TV show called The Joy of Painting. He had an afro and painted mostly landscapes. He said things like, “I’m gonna put a happy little tree right here. Oh, but he needs a friend. Can’t leave him there all alone. I’ll put another little happy tree right next to him.” He spoke in a calm almost-whisper. He was mesmerising. Whether you cared about painting or not, you could not turn the channel when you stumbled upon Bob Ross. I think he was probably communicating something evil via subtext or subliminal messages. He was like a reincarnated Hitler!

There is hardly anywhere you can park in Toronto during the day without having to pay an arm and a leg. What is this, Nazi Germany?

The other day was the hottest, most humid day we’ve had in Toronto all summer. It was hard to breathe, the heat and humidity were so oppressive. Oppressive like Hitler.

There is gum stuck to the pedal of my bike. Argh! So annoying! It’s just like Hitler.

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