Blind Man with a Pistol

The Myth of Public Cyberspace

Make no mistake, the Internet is not public space. Bell Canada and Rogers Telecommunications are making this as evident as they can.

Hat-tip to M. Spector on babble.

Selling Environmentalism: Earth Hour

“Turn off the light,”sings Nelly Furtado. It’s Earth Hour. Promoted heavily by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is an action in which the world can “take a stand against climate change” by refusing to use electricity from 8:00 pm to 9:00 today, March 29, 2008. Well, that’s nice.

What’s better are the hundreds of Canadian businesses supporting Earth Hour. From Bell Canada to Cadillac Fairview, Imperial Oil to Starbucks, they’re all getting in on the action. At the end of Earth Hour, do you think Imperial Oil will shut down Syncrude, the consortium that governs its site in the Athabasca tar sands? Will Starbucks stop selling disposable paper cups and start selling fair-trade coffee? Even Google is getting in on the act. Crafty. They can tune in to Earth Hour without actually turning out the lights. Turning off virtually seems to suffice. The message is clear: buy into Earth Hour and you won’t have to do any heavy lifting. Ecology is a commodity and everything is on sale.

When Dubai announced that it would be the first Arab city to participate in Earth Hour, you had to know something was up. The transnational capitalist city par excellence, Dubai, earlier this year, announced it would turn its massive oil wealth into the world’s first zero-carbon, environmentally sustainable city. It’s difficult, however, to view the effort as anything more than a showpiece. Masdar, Arabic for “the source” will house 50 000 people and 1500 businesses in a car-free colony while Dubai, population 2 000 000 and headquarters of countless crude companies around the Middle East, sees its economic growth and massive expansion proceed apace.

Dubai is the emblem of twenty-first-century capitalism, a microcosm of globalization. Deborah Campbell wrote a wonderful article on the phenomenon that is Dubai in the September 2007 issue of The Walrus.

“The Earth Has A New Centre,” announces a massive billboard for a new mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight-lane expressway in Dubai — a city that was, not so long ago, a patch of sand. As a yellow Ferrari driven by a local in a white dishdasha and baseball cap roars up behind my rental car, and Hummers with black-tinted windows pass busloads of labourers who stare out, saucer-eyed, at this strange new planet, I find myself thinking that the billboard refers not only to the Dubai Mall, soon to be the largest in the world, but to Dubai itself.

The world’s largest mall. The world’s tallest hotel. The world’s tallest building. The first underwater hotel. The largest waterfront development. The fastest-growing tourist market. The Earth has a new centre and it is a tiny desert kingdom gone mad.

Behind the spectacular gratuitousness of this capitalist Disneyland, lies the criminally exploited working class the powers this expansion, its savage environmental cost.

There, a familiar sight: a swarm of workers in overalls gather at a new construction project. They earn as little as $4 a day. It’s more than they would get in the factories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, making jeans and shower curtains for Western consumption, but in the lavish light of Dubai it isn’t even a decent tip. I have visited the camps where they live, smelled the open sewage outside their dormitories, know that many of them can’t read the contracts they have signed. They send money home and visit their families once every few years. Past the billboards, past the cranes, if one squints, one can see on the surface of every construction site tiny human forms. Nothing in Dubai could exist without this labour.

This obfuscation, the sleight-of-hand that Dubai enacts when it displays its “commitment” to sustainability while brutally abusing its workforce and the environment is the crime of Earth Hour. For an hour, urban electricity use will decrease by 10%, maybe 15% (if you can bear turning off the Habs-Leafs game during Hockey Night in Canada) while the cities and corporations that pledge “support” for Earth Hour change their corroding practices not one whit.

We’ve turned environmentalism into a brand. Buy it, and you can sport it, and still have a good time at a Nelly Furtado concert. Turn off the light. Save the world.

Hat-tip to Bread and Roses

King James, Undercover

LeBron James, who is often pipped as the best-dressed man in the NBA, recently became only the third man to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine. What’s more, James is the first African-American man to ever feature on the most-prized spot in fashion. The image is certainly forceful: the powerful, 6’8″ James with the graceful Gisele Bündchen hanging off his arm. But magazine analyst Samir Husni is quoted by the Associated Press saying that the image “screams King Kong…[the cover] brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman.”

Such statements will doubtless attract criticisms of oversensitivity, even of actively searching out racism in an otherwise innocuous work. But, when juxtaposed with the other two men who were lucky enough to find their way on to Vogue, Richard Gere and George Clooney, the choice of dress, colour scheme and pose remains significantly different. In fact, Clooney, in the June 2000 issue, also poses with Bündchen in a very different arrangement. Where is his animalistic energy? Richard Gere, with his then-girlfriend-cum-supermodel Cindy Crawford on the November 1992 cover, expresses a refined, vulnerable air. The three covers maintain the same red lettering, the same pairing with the world’s most powerful model (let the irony of that one slip by for now, please). So why, we are compelled to ask, did Vogue opt to put the sartorially slick James in a tanktop and shorts, mid-scream?

Of course, it is difficult to rebuke a magazine built on tapping into cultural codes and assumptions and reproducing them on a quarterly basis. A casual glance through their cover archives is enough to recognize every cultural stereotype around: the pale waif, the sultry minx, the savage amazon, etc. So what’s the story here?

Cover images from

The Dawkins Delusion and the Spirit of Capitalism

Atheistic and skeptical political philosopher John Gray has published a wonderful essay in The Guardian on the extensive recent polemic against religion.

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.

Gray’s main strategy is to historicize this debate—an act he performs skillfully in rhetoric if not entirely convincingly in substance. Essentially, he argues that the debate between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism is the precipitate of political conflicts and a descendant of Christian progressivism.

The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.

Gray puts his finger on something here that has always bothered me about the way writers like Dawkins forward the unscientific assumption that much of the conflict present in the world today would disappear if religion did first. Aside from the fact that entrenched in this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, it takes for granted that the 9/11 attacks were a religious act. There is, I believe, something terrifyingly secular about religious fundamentalism.

Religion is a language for speaking about the unspeakable. For parsing truth and creating meaning. Marx called it, not unsympathetically, “the sigh of an oppressed people.” Where is the sigh in the suicide bomb? Is the fundamentalism that inspires this kind of sacrifice not, rather, drained of any transcendence? The body is reduced to a secular image that may carry political symbolism in this world, but carries none in the next. Fundamentalism does not trade in the truth religion and metaphysics seek to uncover, it trades only in the brutal, irreducible and secular image.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason.

Here is Gray’s best attempt to persuade atheists to abandon their faith. The only alternative to religion is metaphysics, it is not ‘science.’ The common ‘secular fundamentalist’ strategy is not to historicize religion, to demystify it, but to show that it is based on nothing, that it is all nonsense, that it is entirely useless. This, of course, requires a larger leap of faith that would make a rapturous Baptist shiver. If the object is truly to demystify religion, to show that it is part and parcel of a larger, oppressive, ideology, one needs to demonstrate the purpose and origin of religion. As Gray points out, religion is part and parcel with dominant political ideologies—progressivism, capitalism, etc. As such, it natively carries the foibles and the advantages of these systems. Why is it so hard for Dawkins et al. to admit as much?

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides a sombre warning to those who forget that religious belief remains firmly rooted in political desire.

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all.

Hat-tip to contrarianna at babble

Turn Down Patriarchy

Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities [committed by your father], but in attentuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts you should shoot for. . . .Begin by whispering, in front of a mirror, for thirty minutes a day. Then tie your hands behind your back for thirty minutes a day, or get someone else to do this for you. Then, choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. Friends will help you abjure it, and can be telephoned if you begin to backslide. You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation—by the combined efforts of all of us together. Rejoice.

“Manual for Sons.” Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father (1975). 270-271

The Avenir of Education and Cyberspace

By now you should have heard the story of Ryerson University, facebook, and Chris Avenir. While many would prefer to boil the story down to the question did he or didn’t he, most people realize that more is at stake than a single instance of academic dishonesty.

The first issue that springs to mind is one of policing: policing, surveillance and coercion. The administration at Ryerson University believes that because they can access facebook and the Internet, they should be permitted to use whatever evidence they find there in cases of student discipline. The internet, as far as the University is concerned, is public space. One hundred and forty-seven students question that assumption.

I sympathize with Avenir’s professor, whose generous gesture to the students to offer a take-home assignment in lieu of an exam backfired. But her anger should not signify betrayal by the students, but rather her own failure as an educator to predict the students’ response. If she did not want the students to collaborate she enjoys access to a simple solution: hold an in-class exam. The students simply outmaneuvered her attempt to randomize each assignment with a unique selection of questions from a list of problems. It is as unfortunate as it was inevitable.

The University responded by charging Avenir with one count of academic misconduct and 146 counts—one for each group member—of “enabling.” This response is reactionary and panicked. It signals an administration clueless as to what the Internet portends and a heavy-handed attempt to claim cyberspace for itself. They are attempting to foreclose any future student forays into facebook and stamp-out any dissenters. It is, in short, a land grab.

Society has designated, arbitrarily, certain aspects of our life public and certain aspects private. As new technologies appear and as social conventions develop, these arbitrary boundaries become redrawn. The mass-produced automobile, for example, turned individual travel from a public into a private affair for the masses. When the telephone first entered public use, users were reluctant to use it, citing stage fright. Historically, those with power control how this redesignation occurs.

In his study Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture (U of Toronto P, 1997), Keith Walden outlines a similar disconnect in cultural and technological expectations:

On 2 September 1892 Hannah Heron was struck by one of Toronto’s new electric trolleys in a downtown residential neighbourhood…Shortly before 3 p.m. she was being escorted to the Church Street car by her host’s companion, who saw the trolley approaching. As they stood on the northeast corner of the intersection, Heron was told she had to board at the southwest. She raced across the street, intending to cross diagonally. Recognizing the danger she was in, the driver rang a warning bell, but the noise disoriented her. She stopped in the middle of the street. Too late to brake now, the motorman started to shout, increasing her bewilderment. Finally, she darted in front of the car, which knocked her down and passed over both her legs below the knee. She was carried back to her aunt’s house, where she died five hours later.


When Hannah Heron stepped into the middle of Church Street, she was articulating a particular understanding of what a Toronto roadway meant—of the nature of the vehicles likely to be encountered there, of the dangers that needed to be considered, of appropriate ways of moving through that space, of the status of a human body relative to all these things. Unfortunately, her understanding, based on past experience, was contested by the street railway company, a much more powerful entity, which wanted to run cars at speeds faster than had been possible with horse-drawn wagons. By changing just one element in the situation, the entire web of signification had to be reknit…such questions, which went to the heart of the meaning of the street, bodies, machines, and citizenship, all had to be renegotiated because hierarchies of speed and power had changed. (3-6)

Like the fate of Ms. Heron, at stake is a question and dispute over reading—over signification. We can accept uncritically the University’s insistence that it has a right to police the Internet and affirm their dismissal of 147 students as “naive,” or, we can respect that the students oppositional worldview may hold merit. Significantly, the students of Ryerson—a great number more now than Avenir’s 146 co-conspirators—have come out in force behind Avenir and in contradistinction to the administration. Consider too that younger generations tend to understand the cultural implications of new technologies far earlier than the older, and in fact, facebook was originally created exclusively for students’—not administrators’—use. Unlike Ms. Heron’s ill-fated clash with the Toronto street railway company, the debate on how we read cyberspace is not yet closed, nor is it as starkly drawn.

If, like me, you find the increasingly popular state practice of universal surveillance odious, you should resist the University’s appropriation of cyberspace. In fact, I hold the University to a higher standard than I would the government, so I would expect such an institution to resist such practices actively rather to capitulate to them. Free Avenir.

Why Toronto is not a World-Class City™
12 March 2008, 8:40 am
Filed under: Imagination | Tags: , , , , ,

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?” “Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and the library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Ceasars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Alasdair Gray, Lanark (1981).

Literary Hoaxes: I’m Not Buying

Two more literary hoaxes surfaced last week, turning a two-year trend into a full-on rout. The latest culprit, Marget B. Jones née Seltzer, author of the faux-memoir Love and Consequences, issued a “tearful” apology in the New York Times. The story, hot on the heels of Misha Defonseca’s fictional Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, wrought instant comparisons to James Frey’s admission that A Million Little Pieces exaggerated details of his drug addiction and recovery. Oprah Winfrey demanded—demanded—that Frey apologize to the American public for his lies. And the American public was mollified.

Why the outrage? Why, in a book we ostensibly read for pleasure, does it matter so much that what is given as truth is truth? Would it matter, as Mark Leyner suggests for example, if we found out that Kafka’s Metamorphosis was “based on a true story”? Well, maybe. But does the fact that the protagonists in these literary hoaxes are less than honest eliminate the reality of drug addiction, gang violence or Holocaust survival? “This book is a story, it’s my story,” says Minique de Wael, the non-Jewish author of Misha: Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. “It is not my true story but it is my reality, my way of surviving.”

Any narrative, whether based on fact or fiction, constitutes an imaginative reconstruction of reality. Readers remain well aware of this interpretive act even as they purchase their latest memoir. Even if the backstory is true, historical veracity intersects with formal modes, narrative order and stylistic voice. In fact, non-fiction novels depend upon the discourse of fiction: as these hoaxes move effortlessly across genres, they demonstrate how blurred the distinction between these boundaries become. One could even say that the thrill of a priori betrayal counts towards the overall enjoyment of the fraudulent work. After all, can protests against forged objectivity really be taken at face value from a culture who prefers remake films and Club Med Carnival to the real thing?

I am tempted to suggest that an American public unable to demand that their government repent and abjure their uncountable lies is forced to displace their anger and betrayal onto the pulp (non-)fiction they read before they go to bed. When you cannot count on your media, whose currency should be truth and objectivity, to punish a government that goes to war under false pretenses, you turn to an afternoon talk show that will deliver the repudiation you desire.

Dangerous Drawings: Teddy Bears, Cartoons and Cats

Anti-cartoon Afghans are at it again.Thousands of Afghan students staged protests over a Dutch film that characterizes the Qur’an as fascist and over the recently reprinted famous Danish cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a “bomb-shaped turban.” The incident also recalls the case of Gillian Gibbons who spent fifteen days in a Sudanese jail for naming a “teddy bear” Mohammed after her preschool class agreed on the name. Cue the usual questions of “What can’t be named Mohammed?” and warnings against this latest assault on the Western liberal enlightenment values of free speech and freedom of the press. Incidentally, Britain, Denmark and Holland all have troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. This fact alone should suggest that such questions are altogether the wrong ones.

In Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin historian Robert Darnton addresses a similar situation. Just prior to the French Revolution, a stable of printers on the Rue Saint-Severin suffered abject poverty and frequent beatings from their wealthy, bourgeois master and his wife.

They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food,old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.

The cats came to symbolize the oppression and humiliation borne daily by the workers. One day, unable to suffer the cats any longer, the workers staged a mock trial for the felines, complete with evidence, testimony, guards, a confessor and a public execution. The cats were “publicly” hanged with special punishment reserved for the puss most favoured by the master’s wife. The great cat massacre was termed “the most hilarious experience in [the workers’] entire career,” a bloody, irrational, even hysterical revolt. “Yet,” Darnton adds,

it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not downright repulsive. Where is the humor in a group of grown men bleating like goats and banging with their tools while an adolescent re enacts the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to “get” a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime.

His argument, essentially, is that the cats acted as a symbolic stand-in for the bourgeois, and that the whole elaborate arrangement was an dramatic rehearsal for the French Revolution fifteen or so years later. The servants hanged the cats because they couldn’t hang the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the fact that the workers’ ritual remains impenetrable to us signals its massive cultural implications.

Our governments enact ceaseless and explicit violence on the people of the Middle East in our names. The men and women of Afghanistan are subject to humiliation through daily expressions of our wealth in our mass, pulp media, while their poverty rings as a constant tonic to it. Icons of Western society like our newspapers and editorial cartoons are so loaded with symbolic baggage because of the fact that they are so rare in places like the Sudan and Afghanistan. When a culture emasculated weekly is given the opportunity to assert some measure of revenge, some measure of authority over a culture that constantly humiliates them, even on this small, symbolic scale, of course they are going to take it. Of course they are. That’s the tragedy of human nature.

Then we look at such an incident, out of context, and wonder why these men and women act so irrationally, when rationality has got nothing to do with it. Our egos are served by proxy through our governments, so we have the privilege of boiling it down to rationality. Even our analogies are absurd, and barely scratch the surface, even as we strain to understand. Can’t we see Christ or Yahweh mocked in the editorial pages? Isn’t naming a stuffed bear Mohammed the same as naming a pet Jesus? These analogies are the closest we can get, to be sure. Why do you think the children, who surely know more about Islam than the teacher, than most of us too, saw no problem with naming a doll Mohammed? Because it wasn’t for this crime, for this blasphemy, that the teacher was tried.

Incidents like the Dutch film are not about blasphemy laws, or corporal punishment, or a flawed justice system. Until our governments stop their murderous campaign against nations of Islam, crimes like this will continue to take place, because war, always, does sick things to people, on scales large and small. But this dynamic always reproduces itself too–since these incidents allow us to reflect on the barbarity of Islamic cultures and the enlightenment of our own, and provide more fuel to the war machine that brokered the crime in the first place. It is an impulse consonant with the perverse, grotesque argument that justifies foreign occupation under the auspices of “liberating” Muslim women and delivering democracy to the savages who need it.