Saturday, July 4, 2020

A day in the life in the culture wars

Something happened on Facebook. It bothers me a lot but it required a more thoughtful, nuanced response than possible in that medium, so here is a blog post. 

As reflected upon before, the trouble with social justice movements is that over correction and the original evil both exist, side by side. 

I fear both the old evil “-isms” AND the confrontational “calling out” mentality and cancel culture. 

Do I really have to spell out that I am in favour of equal opportunity, justice for all, etc etc? Consider it spelled out, please. I am in no way denying that racist incidents still occur and must be protested. 

AND I fear living in a climate where people approach each other with an attitude of angry suspicion, rather than an assumption of goodwill.  

Social media is making it all too easy to take a remark out of context, remove all nuance, and generate an outrage storm. 

I have this friend, with who I disagree on many things. We live in different bubbles, and take in different news sources. I am an agnostic social democrat, Ken is an evangelical Christian conservative. We are both the  Canadian variety, which makes dialogue more possible.

We will never agree on for instance abortion, climate change or the role of trade unions, but in spite of our differences there is genuine respect. 

What we do share is a desire to see honesty and truth in media. 

We will both post corrections if we have been misguided by our own side. I tend to be naive and believe what I see, while Ken has a keen eye for photoshop effects. 

I treasure this friendship.

Sometimes, when I have climbed on yet another outrage bandwagon, Ken will present  a different viewpoint. For instance in any case involving police brutality  I am likely to jump to the conclusion that the cops were evil racists.  Ken is more likely to look at what is was like for people on the line trying to uphold law and order in a tricky situation. 

No, this does not mean that he wants to either deny or excuse police brutality or racism. It does mean that he may ask: “What else was happening? Is there some grey in the black and white picture?”

Then there is this other friend. A vibrant young woman who moved to our village a few years ago.  Jo has been injecting some much needed colour, in many senses of the world, into our overly grey and white community. I have enthousiastically supported many of her initiatives, including some I have no personal interest in. 

The latest venture I had misgivings about. Do we really need an investigation into racism in the Kootenays?  I voiced my concern that excessive “wokeness” may make relationships between groups worse rather than improve them. I prefer to see people as individuals, not members of a group. Correcting historical injustices is a complex issue, let’s not get side tracked. Anyway, I expressed my reservations but gamely filled out the questionnaire. I am white and live in a progressive liberal  bubble, so what do I know?

I introduced Jo to a young woman whose mother was from Trinidad. She grew up in the region and might have more to say. 

Remember, my worries around wokeness concern OVER zealousness, not the basic ideas. On May 8 I shared Jo’s story of the day, which was about doing a run to commemorate Ahmaud Arbery, and getting disgusting reactions with this comment.

“Quite frankly, when Jo started to do an inquiry into racism in the Kootenays I thought it was like looking for micro agressions, a mentality I thoroughly dislike. I honestly thought racism was rather like smoking, hardly done anymore and those who do have to hide on street corners. 

It looks like I was wrong. So please share this and shame the assholes  who think this is who we are. Carry on running Jo.”

So far the background. Now the incident.


I had posted a meme regarding the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. About the need to frame the narrative. You know, the regular me on the outrage wagon.

Ken chimed in with a link to a talk by a black woman, Candace Owens, introduced with the following comment: “Here is another perspective. Not saying it is correct, just a perspective.”

Jo reacted to this and talk ensued about the credibility of the speaker, and whether it is racist to call a black person with conservative views an Uncle Tom.  Jo interpreted Ken’s words a certain way, he protested that is not what he meant, it went on and on. 

This dialogue took place between two people who had never met.

I took no part in it but finally said:

“Jo Law Jo,  I  know  Ken  well  enough  to  know  that  he  absolutely  would  NOT call  a  black  man  an  animal.  That  is  just  not  what  he  meant.  Ken  and  I  disagree  on  many  matters,  but  he  is  a  deeply  moral  man  who  believes  all  humans  to  be  equal  in  the  sight  of  his God.  He likes  to  play devil’s  advocate.  As  in,  ”Have  you  looked at this  aspect  of  the  story?”


Ieneke Van Houten wonderful, someone’s come to his rescue...

Wish someone had done that for Ahmaud.

Ken:Jo Law me too Jo.... we agree...

Me: Jo Law I know Ken. That is all. There is enough real evil and racism to fight and we all agree on that. 

These last two comments went without reaction from Jo.

The whole exchange left me with a bad taste, but that got worse when I saw a post by Jo on her page, where this exchange was described as follows.

Jo: “So recently, I was in an online interaction with an older white male. He compared Ahmaud Arbery to an attacking animal and the McMichaels to seasoned hunters. When I called him out on it, he first became defensive saying that’s not what he meant. Then to his credit, he apologized. (Sighhh) Then he hopped right back into his analogy, but now premised with the assurance that he was not racist. I told him amongst other things that whenever I call out racist behaviour, it rarely, if ever, sinks in until another white person concurs. Then, like an answered prayer, another white person chimes in.... to excuse him and gaslight me. Ah fiddlesticks... maybe next time. 


So now I am a gaslighting apologist  for a racist. 


I shall continue to assume most people mean well.

I shall continue to speak up against the evils of both racism and creating antagonism where none need exist.

And now, I have wasted enough mental energy and precious time on this during prime planting season.


Discussion on this post happened on Facebook. Originally the post contained part of the dialogue. 

Jo made the comment that I had quoted part of the conversation verbatim, but not the parts that had been most offensive. That is valid criticism, so here is the whole thing. I do not expect anyone to wade through it all. It took so long because this requires the use of a clunky laptop instead of my beloved iPad, and it is gardening season and well, LIFE.

(Meme about reframing the narrative)

Ken: Here is another perspective. Not saying it is correct, just a perspective.

Jo: Candace Owens is what’s known as an Uncle Tom. Black people are the only ones who get blamed for being murdered.

Ken: That is the most racist thing I've read on this thread. You suggest she doesn't have the wherewithal to think for herself? That is quite appalling.

 Candace Owens did not in any way exonerate the men and in fact she felt they should be charged. What she said was thoughtful and worth hearing. If these guys were about race there never would have been a fight for the gun this young man would have been shot outright. What they did was stupid, they should be charged. Was it racist or premeditated murder? That, I'm not sure of.

Jo: Let’s not forget that these men were not charged of anything. For over 2 months they were free after murdering a man. The video was in possession of the prosecution and still nothing. Video proof and nothing. Meanwhile a 16 year old black teen gets thrown in jail for 3 years over an alleged stolen backpack (he incidentally was never charged with anything either).
It is the system in place that allows things like this to continue as it has since America was born.
For her to say the term “lynching” is a joke and people don’t get lynched anymore, well we do. It may not always be by a rope, but it certainly is public and justice is certainly never on the side of the victim, sending a very clear message to how we are valued as human beings.
So no, I’m not racist, I’m just over people who continue to excuse the brutalization of black lives.

Ken: not yet.... I don't think you are a racist Jo. But this was not a lynching it was a citizen's arrest which is legal in Georgia. AND, it went terribly wrong. As I said if their intent was to kill him there would have been no fight. He would have been shot before he attacked. The father was in the back of the truck with a gun, he could have shot long before the tussle, he didn't. These were seasoned hunters, they knew what they could do if an animal attacked them. They thought they could have arrested him by threatening with firearms. They didn't anticipate he would fight back. Whem he did, both men were now fighting for their lives. Each feared being shot by the other.
Lynching was always about making a spectacle, it often was preceded with a slow methodical torturing before death. That was not the case here. They should be charged. What they did was stupid and of course terribly tragic.

Jo: not yet what

Ken: they haven't charged them yet. The case is still being investigated...

Jo: you just said they were seasoned hunters and likened Ahmaud Arbery to an animal. This. This right here is exactly what I’m talking about. I’m out. ✌🏽

Ken: please don't read into what I said.... I didn't say that AT ALL. I said they DIDN'T treat him like an animal..... If they had they would have shot him outright... no fight would have ensured.....sheesh!!!!
just to clarify. I was in no way saying he was an animal. That was never my intent. If it came across like that I apologize.

Jo: to clarify, what “could” these seasoned hunters do if an animal attacked them?
Follow up question, what “did” they do to Ahmaud Arbery?
If the answer is the same, your intentions don’t matter. You unconsciously likened a black person to an animal. That is how you portrayed your view in your previous comment. Less than.
Did Ahmaud Arbery attack two armed men? or did he die fighting for his life?
I need you to be aware of the words you say, the “ideas” you share and if you are helping or harming. Today your words caused harm and I really just want you to think about that. I am asking you to do better.

Ken: sorry, I was trying to say because they were hunters they would naturally shoot anything that attacked them. They didnt do that with Ahmaud. If they saw him as just an animal they would have done what any hunter would do. Hunters rarely get attacked unless surprised because they shoot first. They threatened him for sure, but they didn't shoot first. When he did the unexpected and attacked them everything changed. A terrible tragedy for sure. My use of the word animal was inappropriate for this conversation. It was never intended to refer to a person.
please also consider. I gave you the benefit of the doubt when I said your original words were racist. I said after that I didn't think you were. Perhaps I could be given the same consideration?

Jo: I deal with people on a regular basis that claim they aren’t racist but then go ahead and do/say racist things. Daily. I spend time bringing awareness to people who display these toxic behaviours in hope that it will evoke positive change. I’m in a goddamn committee to this end ffs. I’ve literally never met you aside from this interaction. Regardless of my view, what I can surmise is that, contrary to your comments, at the very least, YOU do not think you are racist.
I’ll let you in on something else. I’ve been at this for a while... No one ever believes me when I call them out for saying racist shit... the only moment they start to come around is when another white person concurs...

Ken:okay well I guess there are racist people here than. That is sad because all I did was bring further information. w my character is in question while I chose not to do the same to you. I guess there is nothing more I can say. May God bless you in your future.

Ien: Jo, I know Ken well enough to know that he absolutely would NOT call a black man an animal. That is just not what he meant. Ken and I disagree on many matters, but he is a deeply moral man who believes all humans to be equal in the sight of his God. He likes to play devil’s advocate. As in, ”Have you looked at this aspect of the story?”

Jo: wonderful, someone’s come to his rescue...
Wish someone had done that for Ahmaud.

Ken:  me too Jo.... we agree... 

Ien:  .I know Ken. That is all. There is enough real evil and racism to fight and we all agree on that.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Losing The Great Code.

I call it the King Who? effect, after an incident that happened during my son’s teen years. 

A neighbour wanted to hire him for a few hours of manual labour, and he had to call her.

This was the deep dark ages of  phone books. 

“What was her name? How do you spell that?” 

“David. Like, you know, King David.”

“King WHO?”

At that moment I realised that I had neglected a vital part of my children’s education. 

A  precious baby of cultural tradition had been thrown out with the smelly bathwater of patriarchal religion. 

We had no desire to raise children with the fear of hell and damnation.

Yet in skipping religious indoctrination  we failed to transmit the mythology at the heart of 

our own culture.

Daughter filled those gaps in education when she belonged to a Christian youth group.

Son knew the gods and heroes of various mythologies,  could tell you all about Nanabush 

and Mouse Woman, but knew only vaguely that Easter “had something to do with Christianity”. 

I should have done better.

I have never read “The Great Code”, Northrop Frye’s classic work on the Bible as literary influence. 

But one gets the idea. A living culture needs a shared bank of stories and images to draw from. 

Until recently Western culture’s bank of stories  consisted largely of the Bible, with the addition 

of Greco Roman classics in the more educated. A hunter with a grade 8 education would feel flattered  

if you called him a Nimrod.  Everyone would know why the youngest child was called the Benjamin of the family. 


I certainly have no desire to return to religious indoctrination, be it Christian or other. 

More some other time on the need for meaningful shared rituals to bind a society. 

For now, in this time of transition, I feel the loss of the Great Code.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Moulting snakes on the path. Another therapy metaphor.

When people are in ‘therapy mode’, a time of introspection and inner work, they may go through an equivalent of moulting. As a snake sheds an old skin that has got too tight, old identity is cast aside while a new one is being forged. 

Earlier I wrote about my distaste for too much therapy, for endless focus on the hole in the donut of life. Since disclaimers are often missed in the hurried reading that happens these days, let me repeat that I recognise  there may be a time for therapy. I just do not like to see people get stuck there. 

I do not like seeing people take on the mantle of victimhood as identity. 
It is ultimately disabling, but that is another topic.

To get back to the metaphor, there is a period when the old skin/ identity no  longer fits, but the new one is not quite ready. The snake is temporarily naked and extremely vulnerable. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps turning.
People walk by the place where the naked snake is trying to regenerate, accidentally scuffing sand or pebbles as they go about their ordinary business. To the snake every grain of sand feels like a rock, deliberately hurled to attack per*.  

Let’s call the person undergoing therapy  Snake and persons in snake’s life Walkers. 
Honesty moment: my only experience with the world of therapy is the role of  Walker. These remarks are based on  observations of friends and in particular a close friend, now deceased, who got stuck in therapy mode, obsessed with the hole in the donut. 

Both Snake and Walkers may do better if they keep some things in mind.

Walkers may want to tread carefully around Snake for a while, knowing that the loved is going through a tough time of vulnerability, allowing a safe space for the new identity to form, honouring Snake’s requests for specific language, avoiding triggers, and so on. 

Meanwhile Snake’s therapist may do well to remind Snake that the world does not revolve around per’s needs.  If Snake wants to maintain relationships per at some point has to recognise that the Walkers in per’s life are only fellow humans muddling through. IMHO a good therapist would help Snake to gain perspective, count some blessings,  and see interactions from both sides. 

Short for Person. Gender neutral pronoun pioneered by Marge Piercy in her  1976 sci fi novel Woman at the edge of Time. I like the idea of a gender neutral pronoun, but the use of They as singular grates on my  nerves. I am linguistically sensitive. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

A new book by a favourite author is always a treat. I had an audio credit from Kobo, so I did not even have to wait for the library or the paperback. So far so good. 

I love Barbara Kingsolver, both as an author and as a human being. She is one of the few writers whose books I will reread. Her writing is beautiful and often lyrical. From the very beginning her books have been about more than just characters unfolding in private life. In the words of the author herself: 

“My interest is human behaviour, and the complex ways we do or don’t come 

to terms with ourselves, our societies, and our habitats.” (From an interview in Psychology Today)

I like that. These days I have little interest in fiction that ignores economic and historical reality. The intersection between the individual and the collective is what holds my attention. 

First, a word about the voice performance. This is an important factor in an audio version.  Barbara Kingsolver reads her own work. Her voice is pleasant, her reading OK, but she is no actor. In particular the voice she gives to the 19th century botanist Mary Treat, a real historic character, is a hesitating whine that does not jibe with the feisty non conformist that the book portrays.

Otherwise the novel is off to a promising start. 

The family at the heart of the story has fallen on hard times, in spite of being well educated and spending decades doing all the right things. Mom Willa used to be a successful writer for magazines. Those things in print with the glossy ads that you bought every week, remember them? Her magazine has folded. Dad Iano is an academic who has been chasing tenure from one college to another.  When he finally achieves security the college itself closes on him.  Dad lands an entry level job in Philadelphia at the same time that Mom inherits a crumbling Victorian house in Vineland, New Jersey. The couple relocates to Vineland, a town with an interesting history. They are already encumbered with Iano’s ailing father, a bitter Greek immigrant. In short order they are joined by their college drop out daughter and the newborn baby of their son. Four generations, one entry level job, five dependents.

Next chapter: Moving-in day in the same location by a different family but more than a century earlier. Newly married Thatcher Greenwood has accepted a job as science teacher in the Vineland School. His family consists of his wife Rose, her widowed mother and her teenage sister. Looking across the street Thatcher observes the scandalous sight of a middle aged woman lying prone in the grass, apparently studying something.

She turns out to be Mary Treat, a real historical figure. Mary was a self taught botanist who corresponded with the great scientists of her day including Charles Darwin. From then on chapters on the lives of the two families alternate. 

I found this structure irritating. Until we get to the very end, when 21 century Willa develops a fascination with Mary Treat, the only overlap between the two strands is concern for the house. One just gets into one story line and is then whisked away to the other. 

Barbara Kingsolver often uses her novels as a platform from which to hold forth on topics dear to her heart. It works better some times than others. In this novel it works in the chapters set in the nineteenth century. The reader learns effortlessly about the history of Vineland, the biologist Mary Treat, the resistance to the teachings of science and the flora of the Jersey Pine barrens. Kingsolver is at her warm, lyrical best when she describes natural wonders.

I felt irritated by the same ploy in the twenty-first century. The characters feel one dimensional and mere tools for expounding on the horrors of declining capitalism. Barbara, I love you. Next time you want to write some articles, just do it, you don’t have to build a novel around them.

Some more reflections on collective guilt.

Why did it take me so long to figure this one out? 

That whole thing of us pinko whites being told that we are all racists, and us liberals denying it, and then that makes us even more guilty somehow? And even worse, the final upshot of all this über 'wokeness' is that we feel less comfortable with anyone other than people like ourselves, which is precisely what we don’t want, because we want to be able to just see people as individuals, right?

It finally dawned on me that both sides are right, they are just using different definitions of the loaded term.

If I vehemently declare that I am not a racist, I am using the narrow definition, as formulated in an earlier post: Racism is a philosophy that considers certain groups of people inferior to others, and wants to organise society to reflect and reinforce that inferiority. 

When someone accuses all people of privilege of unconscious racism, they are using a wider definition. They are talking of the way we go through daily life, coming from our own experience, not recognising the many ways in which we are lucky. 

When we are blessed with a functioning pair of legs we do not think of the lack of wheelchair access every time we step over a curb. Does that make us “ableist”? (Another jargon word I thoroughly dislike.)
I say it does for instance if the issue comes up in a municipal election, and we vote against creating more accessibility because it will raise taxes. Otherwise, we are just being human.

I can approach a police officer without fear because my experience has led me to see the force as a helpful part of my community. This is privilege, yes. I should be aware of that and I am. But imho it does not make me racist, unless I support a police officer who has wrongly targeted a POC. And so on. 

The question of reparation for historical wrongs is a separate topic. First this.

The first duty of privilege is to recognise itself. Privilege needs to acknowledge that it has benefited from a long history of  oppression. Privilege needs to acknowledge that it owes as much  to luck as to merit. 

That, I am willing to do. Calling myself all kinds of -ist or -phobe and going through life groveling in apology for crimes I had nothing to do with I am not. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: The line becomes a river: dispatches from the border by Francisco Cantú.

Every now and then one comes across a book that one wants to put into the hands of every politician, every citizen with a hint of influence. “The line becomes a river” by Francisco Cantú  is such a book. 

Well written, thought provoking and heart wrenching, it is the story of the son of a Mexican American mother who becomes a border guard, then an advocate for a paperless Mexican friend.

The author’s mother grew up in the USA and needed half a lifetime to get over feeling ashamed of being Mexican. She was a park ranger near the Mexican border. The border, he writes, is in his blood. 

During his years as a border guard he enjoys the camaraderie with fellow agents and the thrills of an active job in the great outdoors, but is deeply affected by the human tragedies he witnesses. The desert is hell. Migrants who cannot keep up with a group are left behind to die of thirst and exposure. Even if they manage to make it across the border migrants may be held prisoner in drop off houses for ransom by family in the USA. Every hardening of the border tightens the grip of organised crime. Francisco tries to provide small acts of kindness wherever he can. At least he speaks the language and knows the culture. Eventually the stress becomes too much and he quits.

The last part of the book concerns the tragic case of one Mexican family. Diego Martinez has lived in the USA for thirty years, since he was 11 years old. He is an exemplary citizen, member of a church, loving husband and father of three boys ranging from 8 to 15. He quit drinking when his first son was born. He has never been in trouble with the law. His employer says he is the best worker she ever had. At some point he goes to Mexico to be with his dying mother. Returning proves to be a nightmare. He makes it across the border but is caught. In spite of a good lawyer and the passionate pleas of his family, employer, church community and friends his application for leniency is denied and he is deported. At one point the wife receives phone calls asking her for ransom money. She pays up, but there is still no sign of her husband. The blackmail had been a hoax. The story ends with mr. Martinez still in limbo, still in Mexico near the border, still determined to make it home to his family no matter what the cost. 

Shortly before reading this book I had listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his Revisionist History series. Highly recommended by the way. Gladwell makes the point that migration patterns changed in recent history. Back when crossing the Mexican American border was easier Mexicans, especially young men, would go to El Norte for a few months to work, then go back home. Families mostly stayed in Mexico. Once crossing the border became costly both in terms of money and danger it made more sense to stay put in the USA and to eventually smuggle the family in as well. Present policies mainly benefit organised crime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

100 % right is never an option

Many of the world’s greatest horrors have occurred because some group or visionary was aiming for perfection. No ideological side has a monopoly on this. This is not a left or right, religious or secular ideology thing.  We have had the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution’s Terror, the Holodomor, the famine due to forced collectivisation in Ukraine, the cultural revolution in China, the killing fields in Cambodia, the horrors of the Taliban and Islamic State.  All had their share of horror, all were aiming for a perfect society with no deviation from the ideal allowed. 

There is a tendency, especially in the USA but spilling over into culturally related countries, to aim for ‘zero tolerance’ of certain evils. Sexual harassment, spousal or child abuse, bullying and offensive language for example. Guess what. It won’t work. Life happens in shades of grey, not in clear contrasts of black and white.

Now please do not mistake this for endorsement of sexual harassment, domestic violence, bullying, racial slurs or other evils. I am against them, OK?  Sadly it looks like we have to spell such things out these days. Critiquing the excesses of a thing is not the same as critiquing the thing. 

My objection is to policies of zero tolerance. When the slightest infraction is pounced upon by overzealous enforcers of an ideal an old tyranny is being replaced by a new one. Repeat:  Scale  has to be taken into account. A mild summer breeze and a devastating hurricane are both wind. 
Are they the same? Careful with that continuum argument.

The area of child rearing for instance is rife with dilemmas. Poor North American  parents!
Somehow they are expected to protect their children from all possible harm, emotional or physical and deal with conflicting advice from an army of experts with or without credentials. Somehow Western culture went from “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “children must be seen but not heard” to worrying the tender little psyches will shatter if they ever hear the word NO, or have to concede that competitions have both losers and winners.
In some cases child protective services get called in when children are allowed a level of freedom that was normal not long ago. There is no consensus, no proverbial village.

When a tragedy occurs, as is inevitable in the human condition, the finger pointing starts. 
People don’t like to admit that life is precarious and we are not in control. They like to believe that the tragedy that befell the neighbour could not possibly happen to them, because they themselves would never ....whatever.  When our firstborn died the day after birth of a congenital malformation our hippie friends were eager to blame my modest intake of coffee, a substance they avoided. Meanwhile the glowing beauty of someone’s toddler was credited to the fact he had been conceived on acid. I kid you not.

Then there is the realm of politics. Somehow we expect the Powers That Be to keep us safe from zealots and madmen, yet not infringe on our privacy.  We expect a social safety net but hate to pay taxes.  We expect safety standards for food, water  and construction but get frustrated by red tape.  In all these areas finding balance is key. 

Anyway, getting it 100% right is not an option. 
But here is what we can do: we can decide in which direction to make our mistakes. 

I resolve to make my mistakes in the direction of openness over closeness, love over discipline, individual freedom over the obsessive search for safety, and free expression over ever shifting notions of political correctness.