“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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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.)

Do as I say, not as I do

There is mounting and unequivocal evidence that the United States participated in torture. And by “participated in” I mean performed.

In February 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was granted access to 14 “high-value detainees” being held in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Among them were Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Shaik Mohammed, whom you’ve probably heard of.

The ICRC is the only international organization that is granted such privileges. It produces reports that are meant solely for the authorities for whom they are written. It is on the grounds that these reports will never be made public nor discussed publicly that access is granted.

Recently, the February 2007 report the ICRC prepared for the CIA was leaked. Entitled “ICRC Report On the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody,” the report details—and I mean details—what it refers to as “torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Since the report has been made public by an unknown source, one can only speculate as to who may have leaked it. Perhaps a member of the U.S. government or a member of the ICRC who felt this information was vital for the public to know.

And it is vital.

There is no denying anymore that the U.S. tortured people. It has been confirmed by far too many legitimate sources, from judges to military insiders to the ICRC. It doesn’t matter why or in the name of what the U.S. perpetrated torture; what matters is that they knowingly, continually, and secretively broke international laws and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.

We know that if this were done by another country, the United States would at least speak out against it, and at most participate in an international court proceeding to bring the offenders to justice. In fact, they have done so in the past.

Just last week Barack Obama said of North Korea’s most recent failed attempt to launch a missile: “North Korea broke the rules…. Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

Am I the only one who finds this hypocritical? I guess it only applies to other countries.

It is time, really, to make an extremely important statement to the world that violations of rules will not be tolerated—regardless of who the violators are. The United States can no longer get away with, “Do as I say, not as I do.” No one should be above the law.

The fact that no one in the U.S. is willing to touch this—yet—is disturbing. Clearly politics is more important than justice.

I urge you to read the International Committee of the Red Cross’s report here. It’s not that long, and it’s very readable.

Keep in mind as you read that it was not only these “high-value detainees” who were treated this way, but most of the hundreds of people they swept up and made prisoners indefinitely. Also keep in mind that, guilty or not, these people should have had charges laid against them, access to legal counsel, and trials to determine their guilt or innocence. They received none of these things. No charges were laid. No access to the outside world was granted. No trials were held. And the prisoners’ loved ones were not even made aware of what had happened to them.

Spread the word, especially if you happen to be American. Your country is working hard to clean up its reputation and standing in the world; Barack Obama is doing a great job of that. But as long as you continue to sheepishly ignore these most egregious abuses by your former administration, you will only be known as a hypocritical country, and you will never be able to claim the moral high ground again.

Conquering a bigot ≠ conquering bigotry

This post I’m providing the link to below is one of the best commentaries I’ve heard yet about the socio-political tsunami that is the New York Post cartoon. The only thing I would say differently is that I don’t believe it is just about white-on-black racism versus black-on-black violence; I think it’s also about getting bogged down by individual and generally insignificant issues rather than dealing with the greater problems at large.

We do this all too often in society. Sure, there should be consequences for the one person on some radio show somewhere who says something racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, but we need to deal with systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny. The one guy on the radio show seems to engender unequivocal outrage throughout the mass media and general public. The story permeates the news cycle and public discourse for days or longer. But where is the discussion about society’s bigotry? I suppose it’s easier to blame one guy, or one newspaper, but it’s not a big enough step to solving the issue of bigotry and intolerance. It’s a massive problem to conquer, to be sure, but we can’t keep shrinking from it by scapegoating and claiming we’re doing something. “We’re fighting bigotry. See? We got that guy fired who said/wrote that racist thing!”

Read the post: www.huffingtonpost.com/jehmu-greene/brown-v-monkey_b_169312.html.

Canada and the U.S.: Collectivism and individualism

DISCLAIMERS:

  • This is a long posting, so settle in or read it in chunks.
  • This one could get me a lot of comments, particularly from Americans. I know how it will come across to some and I understand defensiveness, but please try to read with an open mind.
  • The opinions herein are opinions, but they are informed by research. They are generalizations only. No one statement refers to all people. Never would I use the word “all” and in fact I seldom use the word “most.” What I’m talking about here is big-picture perceptions of Canada and the U.S. I know that some Canadians are awesome and some Canadians suck. I know that some Americans are awesome and some Americans suck. Canada and the United States are both great countries, relative to many of the other countries in the world. I like the U.S., and I appreciate your contributions to the world in science, art, humanitarianism, and your good people.

Map of North AmericaMany people see North America as one homogenized socio-political glob. Or, more aptly, they see North America as the U.S., and Canada as barely distinct from America, as inconsequential, as America’s “little sister.” (I like to joke that this is true in that Canada is Lisa Simpson and America is Bart.)

Americans don’t really care much about Canada (except those who wanted to immigrate here during the reign of Bush Jr.), and they don’t really care if they are lumped in with Canada politically, socially, or culturally (although they are always quick to point out that Celine Dion belongs to us!). On the other hand, many Canadians don’t like being lumped in with Americans, especially in the past eight years. (You read about Americans travelling overseas having to pretend that they’re Canadian, even going so far as to wear Canadian flags and get fake Canadian passport covers. Now imagine being an actual Canadian mistaken for an American during this time!)

Yesterday U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ottawa and Canadians were practically peeing their pants with excitement over it. It got me thinking about why we’re so excited about this president, and about the historical differences between Canada and America.

Sure, we share the same chunk of land and ingest the same food, art, and pop culture, but from equal marriage (in 2005 Canada became the third or fourth country, depending on the source, to legalize same-sex marriage), to legalized pot (Canada has decriminalized small amounts of marijuana), to the separation of church and state (Canada keeps religion where it belongs—out of politics), the two nations are almost diametric. Why?

I first started thinking about this many months ago when a friend of mine told me about an article he read. It was something about Flagshow the births of Canada and the United States as nations reveal a lot about what kind of countries they are today. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had the link here? Sadly I don’t even know the name of the publication or what exactly the article said. But what follows is what I think the gist of it was.

Here is Canada’s birth in a nutshell. Both the English and the French came to Canada in the late 1550s/early 1600s and established settlements and colonies. Of course there were wars between the two and a bunch of other stuff happened: the original 13 colonies of the United States were handed over to America by the British, “New France” grew and shrank, Canada was divided into Upper (French) and Lower (English) Canada, there was the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, blah, blah, blah.

Although Canada came close to having a massive rebellion and maybe even a civil war, we did not. Instead, Canadians were hungry for unity and responsible government, so French and English Canadians united under the Act of Union. In 1840 “The Canadas” became “The United Province of Canada” and by 1849 parliamentary democracy was established for all of the provinces. Confederation occurred in 1867 with The Constitution Act, and “The United Province of Canada” became “Canada.”

Canada gained independence slowly throughout the years via the Constitution Act, participation in World War I, and joining the League of Nations independently from Britain in 1919, among other things. In 1931 Britain affirmed Canada’s independence with The Statute of Westminster, deeming Canada and the other former dominions (including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa) “autonomous communities.”

Throughout the years, Canada adopted official bilingualism, official multiculturalism, social programs such as universal health care, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All was looking just dandy. But Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” sparked a nationalist movement seeking secession from the rest of Canada. In 1980, Canada held a referendum, in which we rejected secession (sovereignty). In 1995 we held a second referendum, in which we also rejected sovereignty (but just barely). In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled secession unconstitutional.

Okay, now on to the U.S. The United States was colonized by a lot of European countries from the late 1400s until the 1700s, but mainly Britain, which established the aforementioned 13 colonies (“The Thirteen Colonies”). In 1775 The Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from Britain and attempted to gain said independence via armed conflict. This was the American Revolutionary War and, with the help of France and Spain, the Americans were successful. But it was a bloody and brutal war.

For about 50 or 60 years following, America expanded westward. But in the 1850s and 1860s, conflict between northern and southern Americans escalated. Essentially they disagreed on just about everything, especially the issues of slavery and how the government should be run. In 1861, after Abraham Lincoln was elected, most of the southern states seceded from the union and established The Confederate States of America (P.S. see the movie by the same title!), which sparked the Civil War. And we all know how bloody and brutal that was—the U.S. lost 8% to 10% of its entire male population.

The point of this quickie history lesson is that Canada did not have a bloody revolution. Rather, it quietly gained its independence from Britain. Nor did Canada have a bloody civil war. Rather, it democratically held referendums on the issue of separatism. The United States had both a bloody revolutionary war to gain its independence from Britain and a bloody civil war to deal with the issue of separatism.

This, I think, was the thesis of the article my friend told me about: The independence and unity of Canada was achieved politely, quietly, and democratically, whereas the independence and unity of the U.S. was achieved through violent wars. This illustrates the divergent…aesthetic? ethic? ideology? sensibility?…of these countries today.

While Canada and the U.S. share the famed “longest undefended border in the world” and are each other’s best ally and largest trading partner, we couldn’t be more different in what makes us us.

A little-known fact is that when World War II ended, Canada had one of the largest armed forces in the world. Who would have thought that?! But Canada didn’t go all imperialist and superpower-y. Instead we were one of the founding members of the United Nations and are known the world over as a peace-keeping nation.

During the last U.S. election, it was funny to the outside world, especially Western countries like Canada, to see some Americans demonize any candidate favouring peace over war, taking care of the less fortunate over “every man for himself,” or seeking unity over individualism.

I’m sure you remember it. Argh, I hate to even bring up this guy’s name because I am so sick of him, but…Samuel Wurzelbacher. You know, the guys who’s name isn’t Joe and who wasn’t a licensed plumber? Yeah, that guy. In his exchange with Barack Obama over Obama’s plan to raise taxes by 3% for people making over $250,000 a year and lower them for the rest, Obama said this:

“I’m gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5% of the folks who are doing very well—even though they’ve been working hard and I appreciate that—I just want to make sure they’re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts. And I do believe for folks like me who have worked hard, but frankly also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress that I just met over there…[who] can barely make the rent. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

And you remember what happened next. Republicans took “spread the wealth” in a death grip and would not let go.

CommieCommunist! Socialist! Commie! Red! Terrorist!

Suddenly the party line on the right seemed to be that if you are in favour of balancing out the classist economic structure by making the stinking rich a little less stinking and the poor a little less poor, then you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of pulling troops out of Iraq, you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of universal health care, you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of welfare reform, you are a communist/ socialist.

So many things about this are funny. First of all, that these Americans used “communist” and “socialist” interchangeably (not to mention “liberal” and “terrorist”). They are not synonyms. Communism is a system whereby the government controls the means of production—there is a very rich upper class, but everyone else makes the same amount of money. (So if anything, Obama’s plan is anti-communist.) Socialism is a system that allows private enterprise and personal success, but the government provides necessities such as hospitals and schools, plus welfare for those who can’t work to afford food and shelter.

America is not yet socialist, but the funniest part about this to me is that many Americans believe this would be evil!

Some people are anti-science, until they need that new cancer treatment to save their life. Some people are anti-socialism, until they lose your job and can’t get another one. Some people are anti-government, until the market needs a bailout.

I would say Canada is a socially democratic country. We have universal health care. I don’t have medical benefits through my job, so if I fall down and crack my head open I can go to any hospital, get treated, and go home, and I will not receive a bill. I will not have to go on social assistance, sell drugs, rob a house, sell my stuff, or be rendered homeless because I cannot pay my medical bills. If I get sick or injured and can’t work, or if I lose my job and can’t find a new one right away, the government will help me afford food and shelter while I’m not working, but I can’t just sit around on my ass in the meantime.

These aren’t handouts. We all pay taxes. We pay taxes to keep our roads paved and cleared of snow, and our street lights working. And we pay taxes so that every single person, regardless of how much money they make, can get healthy if they are sick, fixed if they are broken.

But for some astronomically unbelievable reason, many Americans (let’s face it—it’s mostly Republicans) think this is a bad thing.

I think that Canada’s “nationalism,” our sense of what makes Canada Canada, comes from its people preferring a system of justice, fairness, equality, and democracy for all.

America’s nationalism seems to come from its pursuit of “the American dream,” which originally meant to amass material wealth. It has morphed through the years, piquing in the 1950s and 1960s I think, into getting married, owning a house (or two) and a couple of cars, having a couple of kids and a dog, and making lots of money so they can buy boats and go on vacations and retire wealthy. But do not ask me to sacrifice for anyone but me because I’m pursuing the American dream! This propagates a system of justice, fairness, equality, and democracy for some—mainly those who can afford it.

Canada recognizes and values the role of government in society to keep order and peace, and to make sure money is collected from individuals to better society as a whole. From what I can tell, the U.S. values a limited government to do the bare-bones stuff, and leaves everything else in the hands of the marketplace. That good ole free market that was left to run rampant so that citizens would never be curtailed in their pursuit of happiness (i.e., accruing the most money and stuff).

Canada has a collectivist nature. The United States is based on individualism.

That being said, while Americans claim individuality and are in fact individualistic in their system, they are politically conformist. Most Americans are “registered” as an adherent to either the Democratic or Republican party (some are Independent). The two-party system ensures that most Americans pledge blind allegiance to their party, regardless of its actions or stances.

Blind allegiance is a dangerous thing. All it takes is a rally, speech, commercial, or talk-show appearance to make people start chanting “drill baby drill” or “Iraq has WMD” or “Obama is a terrorist” like mindless automatons.

While Canadians generally respect their government’s authority, we are not blindly obedient to it. We tend think critically, analyze evidence, and question authority.

We have a multi-party system and we do not “register” as a party member. Our political system is much more nuanced, much more of a spectrum. It is not black and white.

The American point of view seems to be that Canada is boring and inconsequential. They think our lack of drama or militaristic history deprives us of an identity or “destiny.” I guess it depends on what your priorities are. I am proud of our lack of drama and militaristic history. During Vietnam (and the Iraq “war”), Canada opened its doors to American draft dodgers and war resistors. We firmly said “NO” to George W. Bush’s invitation to join America in its invasion of Iraq (for some Canadians, one of our proudest moments).

I’m glad my country is not a superpower because history has shown us what being a superpower leads to. Was it Ghandi who said “absolute power corrupts absolutely”? If history has taught us anything, it is that the rise of an imperialist power always leads to the fall of an imperialist power. And sadly, they take down a lot of others in their wakes.

Canada would rather fight for the progress of social justice than fight for world power.

But America seems to have a messianic sense of its destiny as a world power, a democratizer (new word for conqueror?). Political speeches and interviews are littered with language to this effect. There is an action movie-like, self-inflated, overly confident, exuberant sense of a mission to “save the world!” But often they jump in over their heads (Iraq anyone?) and then are too proud to admit mistakes and cut their losses (Vietnam, Iraq).

I understand this from a moralistic viewpoint. Clearly those of us living in democratic countries believe it’s a better system than, say, communism or fascism! But the U.S. seems to view its own politics and international politics through a moralistic, ideological lens only.

It’s hard to peer through an ideological lens with a critical eye.

And most of the world does not view America as the moral beacon they seem to think they are.

The United States is the most religious country in the western world. Not only does it use religion to dictate morality (not realizing that morality predates religion), but it politicizes religion. “Separation of church and state” is a quaint ideal, but anyone who pays attention to U.S. politics knows that it’s not the reality. The ironic thing is that the U.S. shares much in common with regimes they purport to despise. Having religion dictate politics and law is more akin to the Muslim world.

If I were to describe a world leader who had weapons of mass destruction, was fundamentally religious, and believed that his god spoke to him and told him what to do, you’d be scared. Your mind’s eye would probably look towards the Middle East. But that leader was George W. Bush.

Canada is a more “typically” Western society; it is more European than American in its sensibilities. It is politically secular, hierarchical, law-abiding, and respects authority when it is right and questions it when it is wrong. We have the aforementioned multi-party system of government. I do not know what my Prime Minister’s religion is, and I don’t care! Most Canadians don’t.

That’s not to say that there aren’t religious people in our nation—there are, but they know that religion should play no role in politics. Our Prime Minister would never end a speech or press conference asking any god to bless our country, [I stand corrected: I have been informed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has begun a greatly controversial habit of saying “God bless Canada” after speeches. Many people consider this “un-Canadian” and another way in which Harper was too close to George W. Bush for our liking. For an article on this topic, read this; it’s pretty frightening.] …nor invoke the power of any deity to help him do his job. But the presidents of the United States always do. In a Canadian candidates’ debate, no one would ask any

This joke overtook the web and inundated inboxes after the election of George W. Bush.

This joke overtook the web and inundated inboxes after the election of George W. Bush.

question having to do with the candidates’ religion or religious ideals. In America, they had an entire debate dedicated solely to religion!

Michael Adams is an author and pollster at Environics who has polled Canadians and Americans and reports on the differences between our values. He claims that there is a lot that makes Canada distinct from America, and that the distinctiveness is growing. Adams says that religion means different things to Canadians and Americans. Canadians view religion as “a means of confronting the mysterious aspects of our lives.” For Americans, it’s “a way of eliminating rather than exploring mystery…, one big answer rather than a collection of venerable questions…the end of dialogue, not its beginning.”

Adams confirms my earlier conjecture that Americans tend towards political conformity, and also reports that they express themselves violently and are more apt to accept violence than Canadians, who can have disagreements without violence. Adams states that Canadians accept cultural and ideological diversity much more so than Americans.

(Adams’s findings are very interesting and I encourage you to read them. For example, the differences between Canada and the U.S. in their views of patriarchy raised my eyebrows. Check out the link above and read his book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values.)

So while Canada may be akin to the United States in many ways, it is different in more important ways. We fight for our own cultural identity with laws protecting Canadian art and commerce, for example, because we know that what makes Canada fundamentally Canada is too important to be lost.

And with their landslide election of a president whose socialist and diplomatic ideals are much more closely aligned to those of Canada than to those of the America of the past (excepting his religiosity and anti-equal marriage views), maybe Americans are realizing they could use a dose of “Canada-ness” in their country.

Yay for boo!

Before I muted Rick Warren’s invocation at Barack Obama’s Inauguration, I thought I heard some distant booing. This article seems to indicate that I was right. Apparently George W. Bush was booed as well, but that’s just old and hackneyed at this point.

I am not going to denounce this booing as disrespectful, or even impolite (note that they did not boo during the prayer). I am happy that there was a contingent of people registering their displeasure with having a bigoted religious figure so tied to Obama’s Inauguration.

The homophobe Rick Warren, who famously equated gay marriage with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy (check out this link—the invective begins at 2:10), is not only a bigot, but a liar. He claimed that he never said such things about queers or equal marriage. He claimed that he said “no such thing.” He acted like he was being tried as a witch. The problem is, you’re on tape saying it, Rick!

How utterly stupid do you have to be to lie bold-faced about something you’ve said when you were recorded saying it!?!

People should just stop saying words. They will be recorded, or written down, or taken from your web site’s archives, and they’ll come back to haunt you. Or, simply stop lying about the words you say. Own up to them. Take responsibility.

Perhaps—just maybe—Warren forgot that he said these things. Science has proven that memory is actually notoriously unreliable. Not the stalwart photographer or videographer steadfastly archiving history we thought it was, memory actually works by reconstructing events. Memories are an interpretation of events, not a record of them, and can therefore be distorted. Our reconstructions omit information, and we unconsciously fill in missing information. This process is influenced by our own filters, biases, and expectations of what is probably true. We do this automatically and unconsciously, which is why Ani DiFranco‘s line is so apt: “Nobody’s lying and still the stories don’t line up.”

Okay, so given this, it is possible that Rick Warren wasn’t lying when he said that he never said what he said. But because he said it in the first place, it must be a belief that he holds. Therefore, he was still lying about his beliefs.

A lying bigot. That’s who gave the invocation at Barack Obama’s Inauguration. And so he was rightly booed. And lest the right-wingers start railing against this, imagine for a moment that the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, the first openly gay (and non-celibate) Episcopal bishop, were giving the invocation at John McCain’s Inauguration. (Okay, we all know that would never have happened, but for the sake of this hypothetical let’s say it could.) You know that the republicans in attendance would have booed him practically off the stage. If you’re being honest, you will have to admit that this is true.

So what’s the difference? Would it be equally okay for right-wingers to boo Gene Robinson as for lefties to boo Rick Warren? Well, no.

The difference is this: In one scenario, people would be booing acceptance, equality, and humanity; in the other scenario, people would be booing divisiveness, inequality, and bigotry.

And so they did.

American messiah?

The United States—and most of the rest of the world—is brimming with what can only be described as heart-swelling giddiness on this day, the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first ever Black U.S. president.

I don’t want to be a downer because, trust me, I feel it too, but I need to point out something. Isn’t the fact that Americans are almost unanimously filled with such hope and excitement at the prospect of a new day for their country a sign that they do not live in a true democracy?

As Abraham Lincoln said, the government is supposed to be “by the people, of the people, for the people.” The President of the United States and every member of his (I’ll dispense with the politically correct “his/her” for now because, well, let’s be realistic….) administration are supposed to be employees of the people.

How did it get to a point where only 22% of Americans approve of George W. Bush and only 13% approve of Dick Cheney? Barack Obama enters the presidency with an 86% approval rating. Why are 86% of the American people looking to this one man to “save” them? To pull their country out of the doldrums, fix a failing economy, regain the trust and respect of the rest of the world, provide a salve for the problems in other countries, and hold the previous administration’s feet to the fire for war crimes and other illegal activity?

Why didn’t 78% of Americans do this years ago? Why did they let George, Dick, et al. ruin their country (and, some might argue, other parts of the world)? They had the power to impeach, but they did not. They sat back, crossed their fingers, held their breath, and waited it out. And now they’re hoping the next guy can clean up the previous guy’s mess.

I really, truly hope that Barack Obama can do even half of what is expected of him. But he is not a messiah.

Hmmm…I think I’ve just inadvertently alluded to an answer to my previous question. Why are they looking to Obama to save them? America is by most accounts decades behind many other industrialized western countries in terms of outgrowing their dependency on rabid religiosity. Perhaps they are so used to putting all their chips down on a mythical messianic character that they can’t help themselves. God will save us! Except, well, that didn’t happen. Jesus will save us!! But Jesus isn’t here…yet. Obama will save us!!!

I think Barack Obama will do wonders to polish the tarnished reputation of United States of America. I believe he’ll do a great job repairing the government and the country. But I can only hope that somehow he will inspire the people to be active citizens and do an equally great job. Because it is supposed to be their job.