Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

Canadian Racism On Trial

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Because I’m a black man who isn’t living under a rock I’ve been forced to think a lot about racism lately. Most days I feel relatively lucky to live in Canada where cops don’t regularly shoot unarmed folks who look like me, or anyone else, for that matter. A year ago, we turfed our former Prime Minister, whose dalliance with race-baiting chauvinism cost him the election.

That said, every time an unarmed black man gets shot in the US my social media newsfeeds are littered with articles posted by Canadian white guys, almost always Baby Boomers, flatly denying the possibility race had any part to play in the incident. They unwittingly re-post videos and “news” clips fashioned by media organizations they may not realize are fronts for white supremacist groups or organizations funded for the specific aim of racism-denial.

These folks should be deeply concerned they are in league with avowed racists. They would be appalled to learn they are instrumental in the propaganda campaign waged to taint the backgrounds of the deceased and sustain the narrative that black men deserve to die in the street because they are thugs. Even if Canadian whites are unaware the messages they champion are crafted by racist organizations, the very idea they watched a video or read an article compiled by a white supremacist and said “Yeah!” should give them reason to pause for self-reflection.

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Carla Williams, “scooped up” from her parents as a child and shipped off to “more suitable” parents in the Netherlands.

Crimes committed by individuals whose parents are from a Muslim country are immediately touted as “Islamic terrorist” events by the media. Such a rendering by what is supposed to be an authoritative source of information makes it easy for many white folks to adopt this narrative as truth. For the next several days moderate Muslims are forced to unleash a media and PR campaign to appease suspicions that all Muslims are terrorists in waiting. Whenever these attacks happen my newsfeeds are festooned with bogeyman caricatures far too many sub-urban white North Americans believe reveal something axiomatic about all Muslims.
These narratives randomly pilfer the last fifteen years of world history to not so subtly suggest all the responsibility for the violence in the world rests at the feet of Islamic terror organizations and Muslims alike. In so doing, they have conveniently forgotten the centuries of history right up to the present, or the proxy wars in the decades during the Cold War. They missed the memo about the warplanes and bombs we and our allies have dropped all over the world.

Here is the bad news: people die when the high-tech fighter jets and cruise missiles, which are the toys we Western folks fight with, deliver their mega-tonnes of explosive ordinance. Women. Children. Arabs. Muslims. Human beings. Dead. At the hands of “Christian bombs” if you will. Death can’t be stopped where bombs are concerned. I am not arguing here about the foreign policy merits of these actions. I am arguing the belief that only Muslims have killed people in the last fifteen years is absolutely ridiculous.

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The MS St Louis arrived at a Canadian port of call in 1939 with 908 Jewish passengers fleeing the Holocaust. They were denied entry, sent back to Europe and, it was later learned, a quarter of them died in German death camps during World War II.

Every time a Canadian news agency publishes reports on crimes involving blacks or Aboriginals, after about two hours they have to close the comment threads. Some news organizations have simply stopped allowing comments on these stories. Why would that be, one wonders? Here’s a hint, it’s not because their servers are overwhelmed by shows of support from sympathetic trolls.

But our cops are not shooting blacks. We’ve been relatively nice to immigrants of colour since we began letting them in about twenty five years ago. This followed a period of racist immigration legislation that allowed only Western European immigration. Muslims who wear the hijab haven’t been harassed or subjected to random attacks like they have in the US. We let in 30,000 Syrian refugees, which is a drop in the hat given the four and a half million languishing throughout Europe and the Middle East. We don’t have cretins like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in our mainstream politics. All true. So, racism isn’t a problem in Canada.

Bullshit.

Let us not forget, our Prime Minister did try his hand at bigotry in the last election. He knew that would play with a large segment of Canadian society, just like he knew his snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices” (code for “living like a Muslim” ) would be a hit with the same segment. Thankfully, it was not a large enough segment – just. During that same election, the campaign signs of candidates with Muslim-sounding names were defaced in one of the WASPiest communities in Southern Ontario.

More recently, a leadership candidate in the same party of the ousted Prime Minister posited a solution to appease what she accepts at face value are rational fears of would-be immigrants. Smart folks aren’t supposed to be inclined to this sort of rhetoric, but she is a medical doctor. The intelligence required of her profession makes her race-baiting a little more difficult to dismiss. When uttered from a person of her stature the air of legitimacy is cast upon what is clearly a racist idea, and bigotry becomes normalized.

The good doctor has written a prescription to rid Canada of “undesirable” immigrants: she proposes they pass a “values test” – whatever that is. Surely she should have run some more tests of her own, in particular to identify the underlying causes of this widespread illness for which “fear of others who don’t look like us” is a symptom. I think she would find a case of mass hysteria and would do better to hand out buckets of Ativan to calm everyone  down.

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In 1914, the SS Komagata Maru landed arrived on the west coast of Canada carrying 376 passengers, all British subjects from India of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim backgrounds. Of these, 26 were allowed to enter Canada and the others were sent back. They were treated by the British as political agitators upon arrival back in India and arrested for the entirety of the First World War. Canada has officially apologized for this incident.

Canadians are a little too quick to blow their wads while mentally masturbating to the image of our post-racial Shangri-La. This delusional narrative is so easily maintained when we have countless vulgar, crass Archie Bunkers to the south to wield as our benchmark. Certainly, we have never had characters like Donald Trump gaining much political traction. Our political class hasn’t fashioned countless racist dog-whistles to divide disenfranchised whites from blacks and passed them off as legitimate political discourse. But why should the country where so many wish to simply forget slavery ever existed be heralded as the Canadian standard?

We dress our racism up a little nicer because our establishment, which is still one hundred per cent white, are the progeny of the tee-totallers across the pond. England was far more refined in institutionalizing racism. They had an aristocracy and class system that is only now loosening its ability to determine social outcomes. They shipped soldiers to loot the planet for Mother England in far-flung places like the near east and south Asia, wielded their guns at the brown, black, and Asian mobs for centuries, and plundered the lands of their tin, rubber, spices, gold, lumber, and free labour. They banned slavery because they didn’t need it; they had naval fleets who could subjugate the dark hordes and noble savages without having to cart them like chattel back to England. There wouldn’t have been the room to put them up, anyway.

We Canadian colonial upstarts tore a page right out of the English playbook. We didn’t proceed like the Americans: gunning down, marching, and starving the Indigenous people to kill them off and steal their land. Instead, we sent them off to reserves in the middle of nowhere – where it was easy to forget about them – and launched a campaign of cultural genocide upon their young’uns. Those are not my words, but that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which studied the issue of Residential Schools. One assumes that this solution seemed like a perfectly legitimate, naturally laudable, resolutely Canadian passive-aggressive way of rooting out the “Indian problem.”

In Canada there are First Nations reserves that have not had running water for twenty years. Many others living on reserves have to boil their water most of the year. We are only now learning more of the sordid details of another systematized attempt to eradicate Indigenous people by way of the “Sixties scoop.” Beginning in the 1960s and continuing on through the nineteen eighties indigenous children were seized by government social workers from their “unfit” biological parents and placed in foster or adoptive homes of whites who, one presumes, were obviously fit because they were white. In recent revelations, we have learned some of the “scooped up” indigenous children were sent to adoptive parents in the United States and Europe, and that some of these parents paid fees to adoption agencies. It was effectively the Canadian government trafficking in indigenous children to offset the costs of social welfare.

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Through the 1880s thousands of Chinese labourers were brought from China to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were paid a third of what their co-workers were paid, and when the job was done, the Canadian government ensured they would not stay by imposing a head tax to immigrate, which they couldn’t pay because they were paid exploitation wages. A formal Canadian apology and redress for survivors was made in 2006.

We did not teach several generations of Canadians – mine included – a goddamned thing about any of this treatment of indigenous people. I can see why. It’s a bloody national disgrace. When my child was seven, he had already learned more about this country’s indigenous peoples than I or the generations before did in our entire public school tenure. He shakes his head at the truculence of my generation and those before in resisting genuine measures to remedy decades upon decades of tacit wrong-doing.

These shameful tales are the putrefying cherry on top of a festering bowl of racist history, Canadian-style. Historical incidents like the Komagata Maru, the Chinese head tax imposed to bar the Chinese labourers who built this country’s most vital engine of economic growth – the Canadian Pacific Railroad – and the lowest acceptance of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust of any nation in the world, are tragic examples in the sordid legacy of Canada’s racism.

As a black man I can attest to countless hurtful experiences of overt racism directed at me because of my skin colour, especially in my youth, when I was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with them. Every once in a while something happens to dredge up these experiences and it is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Lately, it isn’t the incidents happening in the United States picking at the wounds. These are terrible events to witness, but they do not speak directly to racism in the Canadian context. Obviously, this has tempted countless white people here to dismiss the racial antecedents of these tragic events. It is that tendency, and the way it is enacted, which does speak to racism in this country.

This deplorable phenomenon has re-opened some of  my own racial wounds, especially in the past two years. I have been subjected to an unceasing campaign of denial of the role race played in countless media stories of the day where non-white “others” are victims of crime. Such strident denials without having any apprehension of facts points to the bigotry within anyone who touts them, whether they are aware of this or not. The sharing of racist media publications veers very close to propagating hate speech. Anyone engaged in it should consider that.

The articles suggesting the unarmed black men gunned down by police in the US deserved to die, which some of my white social media friends have been posting on their pages, incite hostility and violence toward me in their excusing of that conduct. In so doing, they perpetuate the idea that I and those who look like me are incessant thugs, a stance which is deeply offensive. It is irrelevant if that is not what was intended. It is the consequence. People should consider that possibility before they share fake media stories about racially-charged events, lest they be mistaken for a racist.

I understand many people who aren’t minorities do not see the racism in their views or remarks; many don’t intend to espouse racism. For many of these folks, I believe their desire to not intentionally spread bigotry is genuine. I grew up a white guy with a black man’s skin. I know exactly how it is. When I was a kid, I went out for Hallowe’en in black face, for crying out loud!

This Western culture of ours, for a long, long time has incessantly touted itself as superior to everyone and everything else in the world. This isn’t to suggest we’re the only ones hailing our exceptionalism. Tribalism, pride, and vainglory are the most irresistible of human frailties. But I didn’t live in those other places, and can’t comment on how they executed their brand of chauvinism. I am only experienced in the dodgy end of white, Western bigotry. What I saw was how we lampoon and demean other races and creeds for the sheer fact of their difference alone. Most often, the sub-text is that otherness in itself is something to be feared and derided; it is never to be taken simply as a sociological fact, it is always in need of our judgment as to the degree of its implied inferiority.

This is why, if you are a white person living in a Western country, and genuinely desire not to be a racist, when a minority tells you something is racist, don’t argue that point as if you could possibly know what you’re talking about. Just listen. If it’s your words or deeds, stop being so defensive, own up, and say you’re sorry. To point it out isn’t to posit myself as a paragon of morality; I am no less likely to possess my culture’s chauvinist, oppressive biases than anyone else. It isn’t to suggest white folks are the spawn of Satan. It is merely to suggest the obvious; that white people can, at times, say or do something that is racist without realizing it because they’ve never really had to endure it – not in this society. They grew up in the dominant group.

The way many other race-baiting ideas are casually shared by some makes it obvious that a certain segment of white folks simply don’t give a shit because, let’s face it, they’re among the dominant group, right? These are the unabashed bigots who are tired of the political correctness police; they don’t want to have to stop and think about what they say or do in respect of those who are different. They don’t want to be called out for blurting out bigoted comments that spring into their mind. It’s too tiring to have to care about that; the others should adapt to our ways because they’re better anyway. If minorities don’t like it they can go back to where they came from. Fair enough, but I was born here, as were many black, brown, and other folk. HERE is where we came from.

To the regular Joes who are unabashed bigots I suggest that, since the option of deporting minorities or harassing them until they leave isn’t going to bear fruit, your energy is best directed at finding the real source of the insecurity and fear beneath your racism, and deal with that. Here’s a hint: the filthy rich, corporate guys in suits. They are messing with your mind.

On the one hand, they tell the regular Joes they are all entitled to the American Dream embodied in the wealth and privilege they and their corporate buddies enjoy, while on the other, they are doing everything behind closed doors to stack the system against Joe’s efforts to do just that. Instead, they reap all the spoils and point the finger at the minorities, the socialists, or the Muslims when Joe is struggling in the system they created to screw everyone except themselves. Racism is just another oligarch’s ploy to have Joe steeped in fear so his eyes are off a ball he never gets to touch, which helps Joe to buy into the lie that the game isn’t rigged. He’s been duped by his so-called white brethren.

Because the charlatans who have you hoodwinked are white like you, the fables they tell about how the black, brown, and heathen hordes have their hands in your pockets – how it is their presence which threatens your way of life – are impossible to resist. There is no pagan idol better than xenophobia and racism to keep the corporate courtesans enriched and empowered to everyone else’s detriment. With the serfs divided, fighting among themselves, fighting foreign ghosts, fighting everything but the system created to completely disempower them, the aristocrats are free to plunder from the coffers of the white tribe indefinitely.

The whole thing is sad and infuriating. It is the elephant between the lines that few are willing to acknowledge exists as the sub-text to many political divides in my country. It does temper my optimism for the future; makes me a little less inclined to believe my efforts to succeed will bear fruit in a society where pointless, atavistic, disenfranchising racism abounds. Such is the psychological torment systemic racism inflicts. It is hard for some minorities attuned to this ugly facet of their existential reality, to “pull up their socks” when, confronted with a racial slur here or a racially-motivated roadblock there, it seems like so many are intent on pulling them down.

There is plenty of evidence to disabuse anyone of the idea there is cause to celebrate Canada’s post-racial social order; that we’ve ascended the heights of a racially harmonious Pollyanna. The xenophobic, bigoted articles written by and posted by white Canadians on my social media feeds, the continued indifference to the plight of indigenous Canadians – despite all we now know about their lot – and the earnest propagation of racist dog-whistles by educated, well-esteemed white Canadians gives the lie to any claim this country is without a racism problem.

The one positive light going forward is that the bulk of those who champion the chauvinist ideas endemic in Western culture, the ones that fuel full-fledged racism, are a dying breed. These ideas, even if still prevalent, are not the only ideas the youth in our culture have been exposed to. Because they are fortunate to live in a world where technology gives them access to a plurality of ideas, they are less likely to be so strongly conditioned to racism, at least in its Western form, which gives me hope.

My wish would be that this problem fizzles out with those who were responsible for further instilling, or doing nothing to deter, these racial toxins in our culture; that those among my generation who continue to wave that flag will soon be outnumbered and marginalized by the more open-minded among the generations below. One can dare to dream. That said, we mustn’t rest on our laurels because too much damage has already been done, and we need to start healing ourselves of our racism now, so there are no more victims.

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This is the cover art for Secret Path, a project by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie. It is a multi-media telling of the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year old boy who died in 1966 while trying to walk home from the residential school to the home he had been snatched from 400 miles away.

American Justice, in Black and White

Racist Rage, Puts Innocent Boy in a Cage

I want white, law-abiding Americans to try and imagine what it must feel like to know there’s a chance that, as you drive home from work, or pop out to the grocery store to buy some milk, you might be pulled over by a police officer for a minor infraction and wind up dead. Imagine.

It is true, all lives matter. White lives, black lives, Latino lives, women’s lives, children’s lives, immigrants’ lives. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered lives matter. Nobody could argue that. Nobody is arguing that.

Except every single day in America nothing is done to the laws, policies, or practices to suggest there is more than tepid support for the idea that all lives matter. So when it is wielded like a brick-bat in response to hearing “black lives matter” it is just another denial of what is to many black folks, a harrowing reality. When it is said “all lives matter” the ones who utter it are simply doing as they’ve always done: negating the genuine concerns of blacks in American society.

The reality is that, in America, some lives are disposable; some lives are chattel to enrich the lives of others; some lives are not worthy of the legislative agenda pursued by politicians. If all lives mattered, the parties in power would not allow social security to be eroded, they would not enact laws that criminalize and incarcerate blacks in alarming numbers, they would ensure not a single citizen went without health care, they would not criminalize sexual orientation, or legislate how women use their bodies. If all lives mattered in America there would be funding for quality education and training of children and youth and nobody would starve on the streets.

No, not all lives matter, apparently. The lives of rich, white, corporate, privileged interests matter. The politicians and the powerful establishment are quick to respond to their needs with decisive action. The criminal deeds of the rich – financial frauds, Ponzi schemes, tax evasion, economic graft and corruption – go relatively unpunished. Their concerns are top of the legislative agenda. The rest of the lives in America are left to fend for themselves. If those among the thrown-away lives happen to be black males, they will spend a lifetime being arbitrarily subjected to random interrogations by police, frisked and detained in front of their children, or imprisoned or murdered for crimes borne of economic desperation.

Why does that happen to black men more than anyone else? Why are there countless videos of police encounters with white people who actually possess guns or knives, who really are poised to use them that end up with the perpetrator coming out of the situation in handcuffs? Why do they get to have their future fate determined by the justice system?

Those who say “all lives matter” are denying all the reasons a person might lay claim to a legitimate grievance in these senseless killings of black men. It is a sweeping dismissal of the legacy of slavery, racism, and intolerance that everybody damn well knows built America and which today still shakes its moral core. The fact serious people are saying “all lives matter” despite the senseless killings that gave life to the “black lives matter” movement is the most clear-cut indicator that America still has not breached the racial divide.

To say black lives matter is to shine the light on how racism continues to tear at the American social fabric. It isn’t to suggest all cops are racist, corrupt, would-be killers. It isn’t an argument that all other lives don’t matter. So stop it. Let blacks, for once, air their grievances without trying to shut them down like a bunch of “uppity negroes.”

I am deeply disturbed by what I see transpiring on America’s streets and outraged by the sheer lack of moral leadership in response to these injustices. I have to confess, my horror is as much existential as it is ethical. These events are a stark reminder that my black-ness, which has intermittently been the object of mild racism here in Canada, could be the undoing of my existence should I choose to visit the United States. Until recently, I’ve been able to live in a state of relative denial about how my black-ness is of any social consequence.

Thanks to what I see in America on a regular basis, I am constantly reminded that my black-ness could get me killed. By a cop. What the fuck, America?

It makes me angry and it makes me frightened. It is an existential threat that no law-abiding white person in America has to fear. So yes, all lives matter, which is true. Except when it comes to black men and the American justice system. If statistics on death by cop, incarceration rates of blacks, and the ubiquity of systemic harassment of blacks by law enforcement are considered, it becomes obvious that black lives don’t matter.

Given this reality, when it is said “black lives matter”, shut the fuck up and listen. Stop acting as if the facts do not clearly show how much more likely are black men to feel the sharpest, most brutal edge of American justice.

I am not anti-cop and I am tired of this dichotomy being thrown at those who express their desire for justice in these instances. Criticism of the thing does not imply a desire to negate the thing. The fact this constantly comes up in American discourse betrays a retrograde, fascist strain of anti-intellectualism that undermines constructive dialogue. The effect of this tactic is to suppress ideas and discourage novel approaches to foster change for the better.

In my career in law enforcement, I have worked with countless police officers in an investigative capacity. I know police officers suit up every day and willingly plunge head first into harm’s way. It is no trivial matter to say that most cops are good. Their choice of career is a noble one. Depending on where they work, they may have one of the most dangerous middle class jobs out there. Those who turn these tragic events into an opportunity to fuel hatred of the police community have no idea the scores of good men and women tarnished by such a broad brush.

But cops are also human. They are not incorruptible. No group of human beings is. Human beings as they are, there is a chance they arrive to the job with a host of biases and attitudes they have learned in their surroundings. Some of these may adversely impact how they perform their jobs in relation to the blacks they encounter.

They don’t recruit white cops from Mars to patrol streets in black neighbourhoods. I grew up in a white family, in an affluent suburb where there were only white people – basically the same kind of environment as most white cops in America. I know that it would be difficult for a white person to have been reared in this environment and come away with positive views of black men. They would have had to rely on culture to fill in the mental gaps left by their lack of actual experiences of who black men are. I know that I didn’t come away with a positive image of what it is to be black from appealing to the culture, and I am a black man.

It is important to say that “black lives matter” in order to displace the thousands upon thousands of images, media, and other cultural and social products that combine to fuel a mental proclivity to believe they don’t. It is to acknowledge the legacy of racism that pervades American culture and society which effectively negates, cheapens, and marginalizes black existence. It is to recognize that police officers are just as likely as anyone else to possess their culture’s predilection for racial bias; to posit that this may affect their judgement. It is to acknowledge the obvious: that, in America’s racially-divisive social context, many white cops are bound to possess racial biases that affect how they engage black men in their jobs.

In my heart I don’t believe racism made these cops kill these innocent black men. No, but racism propelled the cops to engage the black men in the first place. Racism made them perceive the black man’s deeds as non-compliant. Racism may have fueled the officers’ inclination to escalate their tactics in the situation, because racism fueled the idea the black man was displaying a thug’s disrespect for authority.

Ultimately, however, it isn’t racism but fear and recklessness which writes the final chapter of a story where a black man gets killed by a cop in an encounter that was poorly substantiated in the first place. It’s a story whose prologue was written by racism and whose epilogue will feature protagonists with a capacity to do something whose political calculations and moral cowardice will propel them to do nothing. The racist Canon that has tarnished American history for centuries will be left undisturbed. Some time will pass, until the next sordid tragedy in the American debacle is written in a black man’s blood, yet again.

Denial of the social realities that underlie these incidents do the good cops and the citizens they serve no good. The fact there are poor black men peddling on street corners, engaging in petty theft, or who are involved in other “black-market” activities that set the stage for the police encounter that led to their deaths isn’t entirely the fault of police. The whole scenario is predicated on the social ills that come with black poverty and disenfranchisement. It is terrible that police are left in the lurch on the front lines to sweep up what is a much larger social problem in America. If politicians were really pro-cop, they would put an end to this recurring nightmare with legislative, social, and economic programs to eradicate black poverty and stop criminalizing black existence.

I am the first to say most social ills do not easily submit to a casting of the issue in black and white. Except when it comes to the justice system in America. In that case there is one justice system for whites, and another for blacks; one which criminalizes, incarcerates, systemically harasses, and sometimes even murders them. When black and white are treated the same in the US justice system, we will be able to say without a whiff of smugness or disdain that all lives matter.

Until then, since it is black lives which are repeatedly and violently repudiated by the justice system, is it really unreasonable to suggest, in this context, that “black lives matter”? I don’t believe so. To say “all lives matter” in response is to dismiss the legitimate injustices being aggrieved. It perpetuates a legacy of denial about America’s racist underpinnings which, given it is the twenty-first century, is contemptible for its lack of moral growth.

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Blackberry Burn Unit

My Precious Blackberry

I work in a place that makes me want to shove everyone’s precious little blackberry up their arse. Scores of articles by business gurus have been written about what an electronic albatross blackberries are in a workplace. It compounds the ill-effects of those with an inability to prioritize and communicate effectively, rendering their blackberry use a veritable Bermuda Triangle for organizational productivity. The relentless, exhausting, and unbalanced work life of the white-collar employee point to a single villain: the blackberry.

One of the big reasons I have resisted calls to advance to the management ranks where I work is my dread for having to carry Satan’s Anvil around after hours. Throughout my career I’ve had various assignments where part of the job was letting my masters affix that mobile noose around my neck. Inevitably, after a couple weeks, usually in the late evening, I would crack. A snide e-mail; a “did you get my message” text or a witless jab would compel me to throw the little buzzing bastard into something – a wall, a couch, a floor, the toilet – hoping its destruction would make the nightmare cease. Kudos to RIM, their blackberries are much more durable than an iPhone

For me, a blackberry is an obvious productivity winner in the right hands. And there’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem with blackberries isn’t the blackberry itself. It’s the way people use it, like they’re a thirteen year old who ate seventeen bowls of smarties. This is especially acute after hours. It should come with an instruction manual to prevent its irresponsible use as a torture device against co-workers. To be truly educational, it would have to be titled something like, “Remember, if Everything is Urgent, Nothing is Urgent.”

Anyone who is an underling in a large, hierarchical organization has had their soul crushed under the stampede of elephantine stupidity that afflicts senior managers with a blackberry in their hands. For example, a Director where I work, let’s call him Stu, takes his blackberry into the bathroom with him Monday evening. There, he gets an e-mail from Joe who says “hey, did you know that such-and-such is on the agenda for the meeting of the Big Cheeses next Monday?”

After a panicked squeeze of his anal sphincter, Stu responds “We’re on it.” He resolutely flushes the toilet, as if he’s about to storm the ramparts on D-Day, and sends a frantic e-mail to my Manager saying, “Get your minion edmund to get me that that thing by Friday, cuz he writes good and knows stuff. Priority.”

I get to the office Tuesday morning, open my e-mail and see the message from my Manager. “Can you do this thing by Friday?”

I roll my eyes when I see the times the e-mail exchanges below hers took place. Relieved, I know I can do the thing by the end of Wednesday without affecting other deadlines. I’ll beat my deadline for this task by miles. Then, I reconsider turning it in early. That’ll only give people extra time to start pushing more Sisyphean boulders up the hill and watching them roll over my soul on the way down. Nope, better to stick to their deadline.

For me, the issue is never whether I can do the work, it’s always how much time my plantation owners have decided to give me to write the report they always believe should be in hand moments after they’ve decided they want it. Most of them, because they’ve spent years pseudo-writing on blackberries, are barely literate. They have forgotten the mental energy and effort that goes into writing coherently.

Like an obedient slave, I say “Yes, Mem’sahib, I’ll get that report done along with the other ten reports that were urgent yesterday.” I get back to my cubicle, poised for hours of frenzied tapping on my keyboard.

It turns out that, amidst the thirty-six conversations Joe was having between dinner, his nightly bowel movement, and Late Night talk shows, he mysteriously got confused about the thing the Big Cheeses were going to talk about. The thing was actually needed sooner than expected. My boss stopped me as I was about to break for breakfast and said that thing wasn’t due Friday, it was due in two hours.

“Say what now massa?” I said, stopping in the middle of joyfully humming gospel tunes as I was loosening the chains on my ankles.

“Stu got confused and Joe needs it by noon. Is that going to be a problem, boy?”

She didn’t say ‘boy’ but she may as well have. Nobody gave a flying fig about whether the request was a problem for me. In a toxic, blackberry-addicted culture everyone’s got problems.

“YES IT IS GOING TO BE A FUCKING PROBLEM! I NEED THE NUMBERS FROM FINANCE BEFORE I CAN START!” I said, among other things that would leave a long-haul trucker beaming with pride. It was a volcanic eruption that singed everyone in the vicinity and burned my boss to a crisp. I dressed her in gauze and sent her to the local burn unit for treatment.

I am usually fairly Zen in the office. I’m the guy who meditates; who does yoga; who doesn’t let work get under his skin. But there isn’t a mantra in the world to restrain my warrior spirit when high-ranking people thoughtlessly stir up panic because they’re in the throes of a wicked blackberry overdose. When they’re tripping out, they mete out unclear, aimless tasks in the heat of the moment, using brusque language and terse tone; passive aggressively instilling urgency among underlings. This, they believe, is how they’ll get what they want, when they want it.

When it hits my inbox it just looks like someone believes my life is at his beck and call. We both know his grasp of the thing he is paid to be in command of is far more shallow than mine, so a part of me desires to go Shaolin Temple on his ego. Nobody owns my black ass, especially when folks higher up need it to cover their flank. The next best thing to giving a beat-down for that kind of disrespect is to unleash scatological invective around the office so everyone, especially Stu and Joe, knows my Zen is being messed with.

Deep-down I hope Stu, Joe, and others like him are not intentionally trying to be assholes. I suspect they honestly believe everyone will attach the same degree of urgency as they do to the random thoughts popping up in their mind when they’re sitting on the porcelain throne. They fail to consider how easily an issue might seem to be “hot button” while in the vulnerable position of having their pants around their ankles and their hides laid bare. They should stop reacting to their fears in haste, and allow the time for wisdom to intervene. Ultimately, issues emerging on a blackberry will come to be synonymous with the other thing that appears when a man is sitting on the toilet, and can be dispensed with in a way befitting of them both: with a flush.

Alas, I am well aware the sub-text of this affected busy-ness. When people aren’t at the office, leering at their blackberry provides a legitimate escape from the perils of domesticity. At home or in the grocery store, big-wigs are just Regular Joes to their friends, family, and disgruntled wage slaves who bag their groceries without an iota of awe for their rank at the office. Without people to boss around or sycophants to kiss their rings, they feel unimportant, taken for granted, and ineffectual. So, out comes the blackberry, and within moments of opening the first e-mail, the feeling of indispensability to their organization is just the fix their ego craved.

I don’t necessarily blame the Stus and Joes of this world for needlessly escalating issues left, right, and centre. I blame blackberry for not writing up that instruction manual. I blame them for failing to install a kill-switch to shut the device off when the tone of discussion crescendoes and the content is below a minimum threshold of relevance. They could have cautioned Managers that abuse of the device has a hallucinogenic effect, causing them to see fire and brimstone between the lines of mundane “FYI” e-mails.

The blackberry can turn a trickle of pithy, pointless, uninformed exchanges into a cascading wave of collective anxiety, and then into a flash flood that destroys all the towns and villages in its path. Each successive e-mail ignited by a passing comment sent to a distribution list fuels the fury. Users become mad, jabbing pins in their eyes with every opened e-mail. The investment of time and ego into the exchanges renders everyone blind as they throw a well-heeled operation into the inferno ignited by the tinder of mediocrity and the spark of thumbs typing unintelligible e-mails.

The ubiquity of this phenomenon suggests there are too many executives incapable of effectively vetting the countless issues hitting their desk. The resort to delegating all those after-hours e-mails without thinking any of them through is a failure to take full responsibility of their role as arbiters of organizational priorities. In the aggregate, such behaviour becomes a budgetary drain. Nobody – taxpayers, shareholders, or stakeholders – should abide this management style because it ignores the mandate to utilize an organization’s finite resources for purposeful ends.

Too many high-ranking folks with blackberries are oblivious to an obvious fact of human nature arising from the asymmetry in pay and level between they and their underlings. They seem to think that, because they tethered themselves to a little computer that delivers them so many problems at inopportune times, those of us below must deal with the consequences. On this point, their emotions get the better of their common sense. No executive should wish to demonstrate how out of their depth they are by delegating to underlings issues they should easily dispense with. In delegating everything downward, it appears as though they are ill-equipped to say “this is a non-issue, and the buck stops here.”

I grant, it takes intestinal fortitude and good judgement to do that. Theoretically, this is why executives are so well-compensated. When reactive, blackberry-induced  issues from on high pile up on my desk for ultimate resolution it sends two messages. First, it suggests that others want me to devote as much time and energy to the organization as they do, because there’s no way I can do all I am asked in regular business hours. It’s a contemptuous proposition considering I am not paid for that level of commitment and purposely remain in a lower-level position to avoid it.

Second, it tells me that executives believe the buck stops with me, not them. If that’s the case, they can hand me the keys to their office, endorse their paycheque and give it to me, and erase their name from the top box of the org chart and write mine in its place. Oh yeah, and I’ll take their blackberry too. I will place it under the wheels of my car and drive over it.

There’s a reason France banned the use of work blackberries after certain hours in the evening. The way people have come to utilize what was supposed to be a time-management and productivity tool has become the epitome of twenty-first century lunacy. If it keeps up, my organization will have to install a burn unit for the infernos created by the urgency-obsession of those whose blackberry use smothers an organization’s most vital resource: the time, energy, and motivation of its skilled employees.

There is Some Sh*t I Will Not Eat

Bigots for Bucks

A morning radio host where I live was recently suspended after posting videos caricaturing people who live in a particular neighbourhood in the city. It is a lower middle class area besieged by vice and poverty-related crime and also home to a sizeable share of the city’s Aboriginals. Meanwhile, the radio host is a white middle-aged guy who grew up in an upper middle-class white neighborhood. The optics of a white guy mining laughs at the expense of the city’s poor and disenfranchised were tragic, especially since our city was, just a year ago, rated by a Canadian national news magazine as “The Most Racist City in Canada.”

I am aware how difficult it is for regular, middle-class white men to have “political correctness,” lorded over their heads since the nineties. It’s as if society is suggesting they are all bigots, forcing the whole to make amends for the excesses of the few. As a man, I feel the instant sense of similar recoiling when confronted with the idea that I am part of the “rape culture.” But then I resist the urge to soothe a bruised ego by man-splaining to generations of suppressed female voices why their “so-called grievances” are way off base – because I said so. Instead, I try to remain open to the possibility of a worldview different than that historically fashioned by generations of self-aggrandizing dicks.

The idea of “political correctness” is to encourage us to make a mental leap out of our situated selves, and examine our words and actions as if from the perspective of the “other” person BEFORE we unleash them. If the radio host in my town had paused for one second to ask himself “would I think this was funny if I were an Aboriginal?” my sense is he would never have posted the video.

A moment of “political correctness” would have prevented him inflicting a significant insult on countless Aboriginal Canadians in my town, many of whom are rightly sitting on the fence about the merits of joining white society. It would also have prevented many from believing him to be an unabashed racist. That is the point of political correctness; not to tar white men as bigots, but to compel us all to look before we leap, because our tolerance for insensitivity has worn thin. It is a word of caution that a nasty fate awaits he who is unable to restrain his mouth from uttering whatever bigoted detritus was  deposited in the recesses of his mind by the infinite possible sources in our culture.

This is one simple example of the reason why a strong social ethic that frowns on bigotry is still necessary. I’m no fan of “political correctness” because it has been appropriated by the very douchebags it was meant to counter, and they have masterfully turned it into a slur to rival the daily barrage of racist, misogynist, xenophobic slurs they unleash from their intellectual anuses. It’s a sensible idea made senseless by the those who extol their claim to “freedom” with bigoted, craven bombast like a noxious-smelling badge of honour.

The counterpoint to the idea that “freedom” bestows unbounded rights to slander and incite hatred of the marginalized, is the notion that the establishment of social norms against blatant insensitivity is necessary to protect the powerless from wanton bullying. It prevents oppressive biases in the dominant collective mind from being matter-of-factly vomited out of our mouths and victimizing innocent, disenfranchised bystanders. It is to ensure our societies are inclusive and don’t condone behaviours that alienate and exclude large swaths of its people. Insensitive, hurtful speech is a passive aggressive way to discourage the disenfranchised from opting-in to society. Mean-spirited words matter; in powerful, irresponsible hands they propagate the systematic, violent demise of those they target.

Anyone who is on the receiving end of bigoted knee-slapping has asked themselves this question at various points in their lives “is my desire to participate in society really worth the mental anguish to endure this?” In a pluralistic society that recognizes the rights and equality of all, nobody should have to face this kind of bar to their success. Since laws against bigotry are out of line, the only tool left is that of a strong ethic of social resistance to deeds that are divisive and damaging to social harmony.

I find it revealing when someone blasts “political correctness” as a bane that forces their mouth shut all the time. It says something damning about the content of a mind if every thought it produces is so offensive it shouldn’t be uttered. Here’s a test; if a part of you has to ask “is this offensive?” it probably is. This should be a source of relief; it means the part of your brain other animals lack functioned exactly as nature intended. It will continue to do so if you regularly consult it and pay it heed. The energy needed to resist the social ethic discouraging jokes that directly or indirectly denigrate women, minorities, Muslims, or foreigners, is much better spent examining why it is your mind is teeming with misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia in the first place.

On this subject, one of my favourite bloggers suggested there are a few social issues that are out of bounds for humourous treatment – rape, drug addiction, and mental illness among them. On the surface it’s hard to disagree, but my sense is there are no absolutes in this either. There is always context and intention – who is making the joke, how, and to whom. My feeling is, if you were never on the inside, don’t make the joke.

It’s why there are some jokes that, if I were a white guy, I simply wouldn’t make. True, it is your right to make the joke. The so-called dictates of “political correctness” are not trying to deprive you of those rights. But they will compel I or others to call you out as a bigot if you say something that is blatantly racist, intolerant, misogynist, or xenophobic. If you seek to poison mine and others existence with bigoted speech you should no longer expect to enjoy a consequence-free existence as you would have in another century.

I try not to make light of pain and suffering I haven’t personally experienced – it looks too much as though I’m laughing at another’s pain, which is deplorable. If I am lucky to garner a laugh at a serious social issue I see to it that it is at my expense alone. When I am lampooning any of the afflictions that dog me I try not to implicate all who share in the struggle. I talk about my issues in relation to me, and don’t presume anyone else experiences the issue similarly. I don’t know that I have always been successful in getting this right but I really try to think before I speak and hope the good part of my brain catches up when the bad parts of my mouth do the hundred-metre dash, as they are inclined from time to time.

It’s a delicate balance, but I believe it’s a risk worth taking. There are too many issues that need to be out in the open and one way to do so while reaching the widest segment of society is through humour. Avoiding conversations about the harsh truths of existence allows voices of ignorance to construct the narrative, with the risk of re-victimizing those who have drawn the short straw. I think there is merit in sharing our experiences, to reveal the truth of the human condition as, among other things, a constant engagement with calamity and despair. It’s a bummer, but it also puts the onus more squarely on ourselves to add joy wherever we can. If we can demonstrate we’ve lived through the downer moments, and do so in a lighthearted way, it elevates the hope in others that it is possible to find joy somewhere in our pain.

Blogs that explore personal subjects have been instrumental to increased self-compassion, even if the humorous approach does at times touch a raw nerve. Laughter is a non-threatening means by which people can be made to understand the pain around them, which they may inflame by their ignorance or insensitivity. The process of self-awareness is more likely to begin after a laugh than it is at the end of a righteous-indignant finger pointed. Throwing a pie in the face of your persecutor is a moral victory in some senses, it is a way to fight back without degenerating into violence.

Humour can be an effective tool to close a mind and to open it, which is why it is a double-edged sword in irresponsible hands. When we hold up the mirror to our worst selves it is the humour that will ensure we do not look away in shame. But it can also cause harm if the blade isn’t wielded skilfully when the treading needs to be more delicate. Sadly, some people just can’t help slicing and dicing everyone else around them for their own gain.

It seems we’re living in a time where society’s top notches are looking to protect their interests by recklessly sowing seeds of bigotry, giving life to poison trees that flourish in minds struggling with the perils of existence. It is important as decent human beings to resist the desperate cravings that sometimes propel us to swallow the easy meal served up as a balm to our insecurities. The indulgence in bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia is the worst of all the forbidden fruit we may choose to eat. For the fleeting pleasure of an outlet for your angst you will be reeling with ideas that rob you of your soul; that render you incapable of seeing yourself in your fellow humans; that subordinate the harm you inflict beneath the need for a laugh to quiet your tears.

Call it “political correctness” call it “decency.” Whatever you do, set your mind free from the self-serving bigotry that divides us all to line the pockets of the few. When they tell you “political correctness” is the thing that keeps you down, tell them “there is some shit I will not eat.”

 

The Coffee Sucks, Don’t Let Them Tell You Otherwise

Tim's - Shite

Tim Hortons coffee. Shite.

Two young women in the lineup at Starbucks behind me were talking about Tim Horton’s, a large Canadian coffee franchise that sells terrible coffee and crappy doughnuts. One of them said, “Hey, I love my Tim’s. I’m not a coffee snob.”

So, let me get this straight. Someone who, given the choice between a cappuccino made of fresh ground coffee beans exposed to the right amount of pressure, heat, and filtered water or a cup of Tim Horton’s made from low-grade coffee beans ground up and bagged seven weeks ago, sitting in a decanter that hasn’t been washed in three days, is a snob for choosing the cappuccino? That is some dicey logic m’lady.

I hear this kind of thing constantly in my town. It’s a working class town, full of people who take pride in being no frills, regular Joes. We’re a salt of the earth type ‘round these parts. Those interested in hoity-toity, frou-frou, whizz-bang anything are advised to just keep moving east to Toronto or Montreal. Most days it’s what I love about where I come from. If you’re a stranger or if you’re new to town, folks here will bend over backwards to help you out even if, at the outset, they don’t like the looks of you. If you’re standing at a bus stop you are guaranteed a conversation about the weather or how crappy the hockey team is playing this year. If you’re stuck in an elevator there will be no awkward silences because everyone will give their two cents on the situation. You will know every minute you’re not alone.

At the same time, beneath the folksy-town charm there’s a smothering, conformist leitmotif that is unhealthy in the grand scheme. We love country music; not the Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Roy Orbison good stuff, but the schmaltzy pop-oriented stuff. We like getting drunk, not as a by-product of an event where drinking happens, but as leisure in itself (like sitting in a garage), chugging back the cheapest, blandest pilsener beer to achieve the dubious aim.

We love our large, gas guzzling, parking-lot hogging, lane encroaching pickup trucks, even though most of us don’t need to haul bales of hay anywhere. A sports jersey and baseball hat is the weekend uniform for men over the age of thirty-five. We love lining up for shit coffee. You get the idea. These are the things we do where I live. Back in my twenties, I came up with a term for those who were devout adherents to these key elements of ‘folksy’ in my town: “ham’n eggers”.

I don’t disavow any of these local traditions or “ham’n eggers” per se. I love binge-drinking as I watch Canada win another World Cup of hockey. If you need to drive through snowbanks, nothing will do better than a half-tonne. And I absolutely love ham and eggs for breakfast. It’s divine. I love people in my town for who they are. I’ve lived in a big city with poseurs awash in fancy suits, name-brand gotch, who adorn their personas with elements of a fantastic life purchased on credit. It seemed mostly to impress the mirrors on the walls. Frankly, I much prefer the “ham’n eggs” of my town.

On the other hand, affixing of the label “snob” upon those of us who embrace things not ham and egg is a bit passive aggressive, isn’t it? Throughout my life, I’ve been variously called out for liking classical music, reading books with no pictures, talking about philosophy, doing yoga, meditating, not really caring about professional sports, or having an avowed interest in what goes on in the world beyond the wheat fields hugging my town. There’s always the insinuation “Ooooh, this guy is all fancy ‘cuz he knows stuff other than hockey fights and Duck Dynasty.” I think the word you were looking for, my ham and egg friend, is ‘pretentious.’

It strikes me as a bit of a shrewd way to punish and put down someone for thinking a little differently. I’m not suggesting everyone has to travel the world, drink exotic Indonesian coffee beans at breakfast, or run to their nearest yoga shala for a moral cleansing. But the lack of curiosity in the flat denunciation of the difference is maddening – and is very commonplace among many folks who surround me. Instead of this: “You’re such a snob for not liking Tim Horton’s or Rascal Flatts” how about this: “why would you say Tim Horton’s is shitty coffee and David Bowie is such a genius”?

Turkish Coffee - Not Shite

Turkish coffee. Made with finely ground coffee simmered in a cezve. Not Shite.

My partner and I often tussle for control of the radio dial when we’re driving to or from work. She wants to listen to one of the fifteen Top 40 pop or country radio stations on the radio dial in my town, each of which plays the same twenty hit songs. These are the auto-tuned songs, the songs with beats ripped-off from samples of real artists, songs that transform the existential angst of life into campy pop-culture massacres; songs which, in a year, will compel everyone to stick an ice pick in their ears.

Sure, they’re filled with catchy beats that make you want to bop your head. They sound great in a night-club; they are ideal background music for the spectacle of lights and dancers who flank the pop star on their circus tour. But here’s the thing; they’re pop songs. They’re made to appeal to the most undiscerning base demographic of music listener in existence. They’re window-dressing in a whole genre of music that, on the whole, can be classified as “music for people who give zero fucks about music.”

Hey, that’s okay. Not everyone has to care about music. That’s not the point. The point is that, just because this sludge is rammed down millions of people’s throats, and because millions like it doesn’t mean it’s good. Millions of people thought National Socialism and Bolshevism were good too, right? The point is, those who listen to pop or whose tastes in everything else mirror exactly that of the masses cannot claim to have discerning taste. Their faculty of judgement, dulled by the fact of its mass-production, is as we ham’n eggers like to say, as “useful as tits on a bull.”

Eventually my partner shakes her head, miffed that I’m insinuating she has bad taste again. She is a good sport about it. I dig a little deeper into my foxhole with explanations and rationalizations to talk my way back into her heart. I provide logically defensible reasons why her taste in music is terrible, “Okay, so we’ll be listening to Justin Bieber and Hedley in two-hundred years like we’ve been listening to Mozart, right?” I say. “Heck, even forty years from now, do you think we’ll be listening to Selena Gomez and Rihanna like we’re still listening to the Rolling Stones and John Coltrane!” I implore.

Ultimately I retreat from the fight. I accept that I’m a music snob because I am making her feel self-conscious about her bad taste in music. I brace for a chilly evening and sex involving baby oil, Google, and more self-love than I can usually muster.

Okay so I guess there is no measure for anything. I guess anything we do to occupy the excess hours of our existence – playing video games, wanking to reality TV porn – is inherently intellectually enriching. I guess those who read nothing other than Twitter feeds are right to claim their opinions on world affairs, the economy, and climate change are as valid as those who spend their lives immersed in these fields. 

Really? Let’s get serious now. I mean it. The idea that those who swaddle themselves in the vacuous chimera of mass culture to the exclusion of all else could possess authoritative views in matters of taste, or anything else, is totally fucking absurd.

Hey, I’m no less capable of guilty pleasures than anyone else. I grew up with a single mother whose most reliable babysitter was the television. I ate that shit up. Escaping into re-runs of The Big Bang Theory is a great way to avoid the damage you’ve done to your career by not being able to keep your mouth shut when the Director is being a dick at the office. Soulless, mind-numbing junk is an easy salve for the pain of existence.

At the same time, I would never say someone is a “loser” or something similar if they said Big Bang Theory sucks. I wouldn’t defend my bad taste by turning their rightful opinion around on them. In the grand scheme, television is drivel. I know that because it’s not how I spend 100% of my free time. I am a Curious George, and tend to spend more of my free time chasing my tail in pursuit of my intellectual curiosities.

Curiosity; that faculty of mind distinguishing human beings from apes and pigs. It’s what compelled we humans to invent the tools of modernity that have made our lives infinitely easier than those of our ancestors: the combustion engine, electricity, airplanes, computers, and so forth. It’s a mental faculty that has been vital to our survival; one whose slow death our culture seems to celebrate. Every day I am exposed to mass media I see reams of Westerners pissing on the grave of the one virtue that secured our place at the top of the food chain: human wonder.

Cappuccino and biscotti

Cappuccino and biscotti. Absolutely, positively, not shite.

Throughout history, there are scores of examples where absolute rulers have sought to cast a pall of ignorance over the masses. How did they do this? They withheld education, books, and sought to control the information available to them. In lieu of power and participation in the fate of the nation, they gave them bread and circuses to pass the time. The despots of yore knew ignorance was more powerful than a loyal army to keep the masses subdued.

A mind engaged inevitably comes to be a mind that reflects; one that is prone to ask “why are most of us struggling and poor while that small batch of billionaires are getting richer every year?” Minds accustomed to that kind of reflection are not as easily swayed by the answer “don’t worry struggling middle-class peon, the wealthier we billionaires are, the better off you will be. Eventually. Just wait a little longer.” Only people whose wits have been softened by inactivity could believe such royal horseshit.

This is what gets my back up about the “snob” comment, especially when it’s wielded against anyone or anything that reeks of intellectual discernment. It is part of the same anti-intellectual strain of thinking that has darkened our culture for decades; since the senile guy who once starred in Bedtime for Bonzo became the most powerful puppet in the Western world. It’s a catch-all to disdain anything that might pass for “high-minded.” It is a celebration of the trailer-park simpleton as cultural ideal; a belief that Homer Simpson is the benchmark for modern civilization.

Such thinking has made it possible for millions of people to believe Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate as president of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential nation on the planet. His supporters don’t seem capable of seeing through his “self-made” narrative or extrapolating from his misogynist, Muslim-banning, chest-thumping, race-baiting, simple question-avoiding bluster as to what kind of leader he would be. The lack of discernment in matters of taste seems to have overtaken their capacity to discern what is or isn’t politically in their own interests as well.

Closer to home, many of my fellow ham’n eggers swallow the turd in a cup about how taxes, government, and immigrants are bad just because the guy on television who looks white, male, and frightened of change, just like them, said so. All the while unrestrained corporate wealth, guns (at least in the hands of white Christians and police), and more millionaire hockey players are accepted as good simply because they too are so much more familiar than the other thing. For a long time, folks have been given cups and cups of this shit coffee. The longer everyone’s been drinking it, the more pressure each person feels to set aside their mental faculties and believe it grand simply because everyone seems to love it.

Angry Mob Politics - Shite

The politics of hate, blame, fear, and scapegoating propagated by Ayn Rand circle-jerking politicians. Shite.

Next time you hear someone say “that cuppa Tim’s sucks” try to restrain your instinct to defend the turd. Don’t automatically succumb to your impulse to silence the differing view by uttering slurs like “snob” or “bleeding heart liberal.” Don’t believe the hype; it will dull your capacity to adjudge the shit coffee and fascist demagogues as terrible for your soul. Instead, hear those who were able to taste the popular brand of nonsense a little more critically; who were driven by their curiosity about the possibility of something different and better; who have discovered that, sometimes, what we have been led to believe as virtuous and true can be utterly false and reprehensible.

In the end, I’d rather be a snob than a fool. Enjoy your shit coffee like the rest of the mob if you really want to. I can bet the billionaires are ecstatic you continue to buy it; that your addiction to the belief in its goodness will fill their pockets with your money.

Bu-Bye Harper, From a Beleaguered Civil Servant

(Written in November 2015)

Lord Harper, er Vader, and PMO minions

Ousted PM Harper and a couple of big-headed, small-minded minions from the PMO trailing behind.

Canadians from all corners of this vast country voted last fall to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and gave the Liberal Party of Canada and Justin Trudeau a clear mandate to govern. The election results included a large swath of votes that went to the New Democratic Party and Green parties, and clearly signaled a widespread desire for government to play an active role in bettering the lives of Canadians. For many years we watched Harper and his clowns publicly engage in projectile vomiting toward the bureaucracy; we saw him toss a steady-stream of scapegoats under the bus to titillate the spectators of their three-ring circus who came with a blood-lust.

There isn’t much room for interpretation of those fall election results. It is a clear repudiation of the angry, divisive style and tone of the former Prime Minister. It was a rejection of his empty platform – if banning burqas and rallies with Rob Ford are rightly called parts of a ‘platform.’ Canadians demanded a plan that was more specific than “tax cuts” which, in Harper’s final term of office, seemed to fuel the belief he had a free hand to do anything he pleased so long as he cut a per cent off the GST – proroguing parliament three times, introducing bills amending twenty-six pieces of legislation without study by committee, passing unconstitutional laws, firing scientists from the bureaucracy for discussing science, and so on, and so on. Maybe Canadians want to pay less tax, but they also want a government to outline its agenda and be transparent in its actions; they want to be given something by which an informed decision about whether to give them a mandate can be made.

I say that not as a partisan, but as a civil servant who, like the vast majority of my public-sector peers, have made a career implementing the laws, plans, and priorities of government, hopefully for the betterment of the lives of Canadians. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear a public servant suggest that, under the tutelage of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the last several years were totally demoralizing. It wasn’t just the cuts to thousands of colleagues, it was vitriolic way by which the public service as a whole was slandered to justify the deed; a mode of attack sustained well after the slashing had been done. It revealed the Harper Conservatives not as good governors or earnest policy-makers but as petty, vindictive human beings.

PM Trudeau - aka The Count of Monte Cristo

The man who saved the citizens of Canada from the evil reign of Lord Vader, the Count of Monte Cristo, er, I mean Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau

The relationship between the elected government of the day and the Canadian public service is grounded in the Westminster system of government inherited from our great- great- grandparents in the United Kingdom. In this model, there is a clear separation from the Prime Minister and Cabinet on one side, and the non-partisan government Ministries that administer the laws, regulations, policies, and plans attached to each of the portfolios of the Cabinet on the other.

The Cabinet Minister with portfolio is politically accountable for the activities of his Ministry. However, the person responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Ministry is the Deputy Minister. The relationship is much like that of a Chief Executive Officer and a Chief Operating Officer in a large, publicly-traded company. The former is accountable to outside stakeholders, the latter is responsible to run the place and keep the CEO informed.

Under this arrangement, Cabinet ministers are not expected to be expert in their portfolios. As avatars of the will of the people they are there to provide clear mandates to the Deputy Ministers (DM) who must implement the plans of government. As elected officials, it is the Minister’s job to engage stakeholder citizens to canvass their issues and incorporate them into directives their DMs must achieve in operating the department. It is also the role of the elected Minister to remain abreast of the progress of his Ministry in effecting the agenda, and to communicate progress to the stakeholders.

The role of the Deputy Minister and the bureaucracy is to take what can be very broad, vague instructions of their Minister and, as experts in the area, find effective ways to implement these plans with the resources provided to do so. Sometimes that means recommending new laws or policy to ensure that plans are undertaken in a fair and procedurally transparent fashion. Determining the best way to execute an idea or plan is a process, but relies on the expertise and resources of the public service to carry those plans through effectively.

On paper, it seems so simple. Except, imagine how hard it must be for a newly-elected Minister who was a pig farmer by vocation to suddenly find himself politically responsible for the day-to-day operations of a department like Foreign Affairs. The urge to interfere and micromanage to allay anxieties about being politically accountable for something way beyond your grasp is understandably strong. The new Minister doesn’t know his DM, the Ministry, or the Public Service from a hole in the side of his barn.

This is why the bonds of trust and respect between the elected government of the day and the Public Service is essential right at the outset. For the Prime Minister and Cabinet, this is where Deputy Ministers (and the Privy Council Office) make their bread. They are accustomed to working with people who do not know their portfolios in depth and they have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of public servants in their Ministries to do the necessary work in rolling out plans, monitoring progress, and reporting on accountabilities.

There is a reason Canada is a relatively centrist, middling country whose progress tends to be slow but steady. The day-to-day functioning of government Ministries is mandated by the laws of Parliament and as such cannot be subjected to political whimsy or interference. If that happens, then laws become meaningless paeans to corruption. At the same time, ideas that express the desires of the people, even if whimsical for their lack of specificity, cannot be flatly dismissed by stolid bureaucracies. That is why there needs to be mutual respect, discussion, and trust between the sides. They may start at opposite ends of how ideas translate into programs and policy and must, from there, arrive at a measure of what can feasibly be accomplished.

This is why the public service must not be partisan. It is expected to give the best advice possible no matter who is in power. Certainly, public servants have political views – they are citizens – however they take their cues from the will of democracy as exemplified in the elected government and focus their efforts on gaining expertise in the machinery of government. This allows Deputy Ministers to provide the most candid advice without taint of political machinations.

It is clear, the former government of Prime Minister Harper did very little to respect the Westminster model of government – either on the political side where he prorogued Parliament, introduced omnibus bills and the like – or in respect of the bureaucracy, which he politicized to a degree unprecedented in recent Canadian history. He took the premise of prioritizing government austerity and transformed it into a campaign to discredit and impugn the integrity of the public service in the eyes of the Canadian public. In dismissing the competence of the public service outright and attempting to reach far into the day-to-day functions of the Ministries he also undermined the very essence of a functioning government which relies on a partnership of elected ministers and a non-partisan bureaucracy.

For the most part, I dismissed Harper’s electioneering as the necessary bluster of politics. It was meant to give the public something of putative substance to spice up the most unimaginative political platform for a nation imaginable: “tax relief.” In my mind, that was a clever evasion; a bit of mental laziness for failing to outline one’s policy choices. It still shocks me that Canadians or any citizen of a democracy falls for such nonsense, but such is the tenor of the times. If Canadians wanted to believe that public servants are demons, fair enough, but no rational group of elected officials given a mandate to actually govern could possibly have believed that nonsense, I reasoned. How truly wrong I was.

In the beginning, Harper slashed and razed publicly funded programs like the Court Challenges Program on strident, ideological grounds and justified it by saying the electorate had given him carte blanche to cut as he saw fit. Toward the end of PM Harper’s reign, the PMO went rogue all over the public service, truly believing their own fabulist tales about how bureaucrats were devoid of competence or irrelevant to running a government. The Globe and Mail story about how the PMO requested refugee files of fleeing Syrian migrants to do their own audit of the immigration department’s file management was the most insidious reflection of this. What expertise lay in the PMO that would have outflanked that of seasoned bureaucrats whose careers had been spent assessing immigration and refugee applications? What kind of audit could a non-experienced political staffer have done that would have been qualitatively better than, say, one done by a senior executive within the immigration department?

I have to confess in the end, I took much of this very personally as a public servant because of the systematic attacks we were all subjected to for so many years. To this day, the mere utterance of the name Tony Clement makes me want to drive my fist into the nearest wall imagining his smug, self-satisfied, corrupt face as a target. But then I was heartened to have such strange bedfellows in my career woes: Harper’s most prominent Cabinet ministers began to drop off like flies before the last election. Backbench MPs were kicked out of caucus, senior Cabinet members were muzzled, party discipline turned grown adults into cheerleaders for Harper’s cynical agenda. I barely knew the names of a vast majority of Conservative MPs or Cabinet ministers until the press releases announced their departures. ‘Ah, so that’s who the so-and-so Minister was. Good to know,’ I found myself saying repeatedly.

Tony Clement his PMO minion and bureaucrat

Tony (Jabba the Hutt) Clement, his little minion/lackey, and a hapless bureaucrat enslaved for calling in sick one too many times for Jabba’s liking.

It became clear, the former PM believed he needed neither a public service nor an effective Cabinet and party caucus to govern this country. In retrospect, it is harrowing to think that the Conservative Party was so totally emasculated that it could do nothing to protest such iron-fisted rule, or rein in unilateral decisions that everyone in caucus must have known would be wildly unpopular with the electorate. It makes me shudder for Canadian democracy to think how close we were to having elected a dictator.

In any case, from the perspective of a public servant, Harper’s reign is so tragically peculiar. It is unbecoming of a man of Stephen Harper’s obvious intelligence and genuine desire to serve the public interest to have harboured such clear delusions about what could be achieved all on his own; to think he didn’t need a civil service to implement his plans. Not only is it idiotic but it is petty to the extreme. I think there are lessons in this for any party leader. His legacy is the cautionary tale of what happens when over-wrought ego and hubris combine not only to rob a party of its moral tether but to deprive a nation of a well-functioning government.

I make these points not in the interests of supporting a particular party, so much as to offer a lone voice from the public service to counter the repeated sermons demonizing civil servants Canadians heard from the bully pulpit of the previous government. I am also speaking out as just one of the thousands of public servants who get up every day and try their hardest to do their jobs to the best of their ability with the tools – and the orders – given them. Imagine going to work at your company and everyday seeing your boss on television or in the papers disparaging you, suggesting you’re over paid, under-worked, incompetent, undeserving, entitled, expendable, and mostly unnecessary. And then imagine that boss coming to you every day with a new plan, priority, or mandate and castigating you publicly for being unable to steer a teetering ship in seventeen different directions. Imagine.

In the end, Canadians were able to see through the vitriol and to the character and integrity of a man so easily capable of lobbing such relentless invective at the very people he needs to help him govern. I am glad collective wisdom prevailed. Not only has it maintained my faith in my fellow citizens, but so too has it restored my faith in democracy and re-invigorated my desire to serve the public.

Despite the number of Canadians who voted against the message of negativity in our Canadian election, there is still a sizeable element of the Canadian public who still lack faith in the integrity of the public service, who seem to doubt on a fundamental level the utility in spending a dime on public services. The former PM and a few of his ministers focused much of their effort on painting a picture of federal public servants as abusers of certain entitlements such as sick pay. They felt so strongly about the issue they fed the Canadian public misinformation about the cost and nature of sick leave in the public service. They passed legislation to impose a new sick-leave regime which violates the collective bargaining rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I would ask, what are citizens supposed to take away about their rights as employees across all sectors if its own federal public servants and their employer, the Government of Canada, are flouting the constitutional foundations of Canada’s labour laws?

Trudeau-Brazeau

Then-MP Trudeau rightly pointing out the douchey speedo worn by the Conservative Senator. The skinny guy won the boxing match, the speedo can never be un-seen, regrettably.

At some point this type of dialogue simply marks those who utter it as stupid, ignorant assholes. I don’t know why, but it is conservative ideologues in Canada and the US that seem to monopolize these ranks. To be blunt, this isn’t conservatism at all; it is libertarianism, the right side of a continuum that ends in anarchism on the left. David Hume, Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott would recognize nothing in the movements passing themselves off as conservatism these days. The political discourse their proponents tout resembles a bowel movement, rather than a legitimate body of political thought.

In any case, many so-called conservatives tout specific policy priorities that only governments can implement, which makes their avowed desire to see the death of government through tax starvation really peculiar. For example, conservatives typically view military intervention as the preferred stand-in for real diplomacy in foreign relations. Person for person, the military is the most expensive of government operations a nation undertakes – each soldier comes with a huge price-tag in training and equipment that consumes tax revenue far more rapidly than other programs. To the degree right-wing ideology informs an over-reliance on military solutions, it posits a far more profligate use of the public purse than any number of items on a typical socialist agenda.

After the 2008 housing and financial sector crash, what would the US economy look like today if there were no government to intervene? That bailout was tax money, in case anyone was wondering. It’s interesting, when the government expenditures benefit corporate interests the reliance on such schemes upon buckets of tax revenue, or their deprivation of the public purse with preferential tax policies, which is effectively a tax subsidy, are completely downplayed. Make no mistake, these rely upon a government that collects taxes; in some cases lots of taxes.

Suffice it to say there will never be a state of affairs where a government collects little or no taxes and is then able to respond to the needs of its citizens with effective policies; yes, even if “conservatives” are elected. So, this line of rhetoric about zero taxes and the perfunctory role of government should no longer gain any traction politically. Taken to the extreme it benefits only those who would see our democratic nations turned into Corporations which are, by virtue of their purely economic nature, primarily fascist organizations. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet are what happens when oligarch industrialists, teeming with ennui at the mere monopolization of a nation’s wealth, aspire to monopolize the political power as well; their zeal for propagating  disenfranchisement as they fatten their wallets knows no bounds.

Given that reality, Canadians are best served by parties offering something other than business priorities or tax policy; who do not tout cynical notions that undermine democracy and care little for social goods like education or health care. Citizens are best served by plugging their ears to demagogues who spew old albatrosses about “evil government” and “lazy public servants” as institutions that aren’t worth sustaining with tax revenue. It’s a great song and dance, but if taxes are cut the services and the government go with them. I shouldn’t have to spell that out, but there are throngs of people who support perpetual tax cuts without thinking about what will step in to deliver public goods – Corporations. It is a clever, elegant delusion which, if it continues to be believed, will destroy the foundation that makes Canada a global economic and political leader – an educated, healthy, and well-governed society.

I take the 2015 federal election as a clear sign Canadians want to get back to reality. We can’t deny the nation-building role of government – hospitals, schools, universities – these were planned, built, and continue to be operated by government. Those who say they don’t want to pay taxes are essentially saying they are in favour of letting the schools, hospitals, police detachments, and universities crumble. Any party that pretends to offer “savings” by gutting the ability of a government to deliver on its mandate, and slanders their key partners in governing – the public service – should be chased off the political stage as the disingenuous frauds and hucksters they are. They are selling snake oil to gain power.

I say that as a citizen foremost, and as a public servant eager for a government who proceeds with a vision and a plan to make Canadian lives better. I am glad last fall most Canadians put their votes toward parties that decided to run on actual policy issues. In order for the Westminster model to work as intended, it needs elected officials with a clear mandate who are eager to work with their mandarins to implement their priorities. The Westminster model needs elected officials who believe the reason they stood for office is to actually govern the nation.

Trudeau and Pandas

Let’s get some pandas, some bamboo, some civil servants and do this governing thing gangsta-style.

To Prime Minister Trudeau I say my colleagues and I are here with knowledge, experience, and eagerness to work as partners with the government of the day to implement its plans. I say the same to the next Prime Minister, be it yourself or another. We are here to serve our fellow citizens because that is what we do – we work for Canadians. True enough, we are less able to massage hollow partisan agendas into workable laws and real policy because, in their contempt for reality, they don’t translate into feasible, measurable results. We have dedicated our careers to advising elected officials in how to turn lofty political ideas into practical, executable plans. Now that the politicking is over, let’s rise above the platitudes to rouse a political base, dispense with scape-goating the public sector to feed the knuckle-draggers, and collaborate to effect real, meaningful changes to better the lives of Canadians. That is why we both sought to be where we are, after all.