Blind Man with a Pistol

What is to be done?

I’ll spare you the SMS joke-headline, but Bell and Telus have decided to start charging the outrageous fee of fifteen cents when users receive text messages. That includes unwanted spam and advertisements. The reaction, predictably, has been fierce. “Outrage” is a term that comes to mind. “Price Gouging” has made an appearance The NDP, Canada’s left-wing party, has bravely decided to take on these callous cellphone robber barons. After all, who better than the NDP who previously stalwartly took our side over ATM fees?

Defenders of Bell and Telus claim that if you don’t like the user fees, you can simply switch providers (at a $20 per remaining month fee for breaking your contract, natch). Or, you can stop using texts. Or stop using cell phones. You aren’t entitled, after all, to free messaging. If the service is worth the money, you’ll pay it. The market will sort it out.

And of course, such apologists are absolutely right. As participants in consumerist culture, we aren’t entitled to anything. We don’t have rights, influence or control. There is something ridiculous, impotent about the response to incidents like these. Hitherto unseen environmental destruction proceeds at a blazing pace as a direct result of the capitalist, consumerist system. A thousand jobs disappear in an instant, devastating communities, yet the public responds with incredulity, bewilderment, apathy. “How could this have happened?” Yet we know, rationally, exactly why this happens. We know, rationally, that our economic encourages, even relies upon such acts of violence, yet all we can do is wring our hands and hope for something better to come along.

And yet, when a phone company unfairly raises prices on our mobile phones, we can see with crystal clear precision the inequalities and injustice that motivate the practice. We become organized, mobilized, united (did you sign the NDP’s petition yet?) We rail in righteous outrage against corporate oppression, impotent in our anger, feebly shaking our fists.

k thx bye

Post Canada

Alison at The Galloping Beaver points out some alarming signs that Canada might be moving to privatize our postal system. “Why would the federal government,” Alison asks,

appoint a panel of three people, the chair of which has already written two books advocating the end of postal monopolies, to determine whether Canada Post should be allowed to continue to provide us with universal service and some of the lowest postal rates in the world, or whether it would somehow be better to deregulate it so that private corps can have a piece of it?

It’s a question to which we all know the answer, unfortunately. April Reign was pondering it a year ago. Of course, Canada Post already has a test case for privatization. Tony Blair ‘liberalized’ Britain’s Royal Mail in 2006, to the massive benefit of large companies who poached profitable routes from the government while leaving those less lucrative to languish. Sure, it sounds good on paper, but how did it work out?

The government’s strategy of opening up the postal market to private sector competition has provided “no significant benefits” for consumers and smaller businesses, while representing a “substantial threat” to the future of the Royal Mail, an independent report commissioned by ministers warned yesterday.

Oh dear. Then again, perhaps we’re thinking too small here. Perhaps instead of simply selling off existing postal routes, we should be encouraging innovation and ambition. Shouldn’t anyone with a Westphalia caravan, a few burlap sacks and a sense of adventure be able to start their own postal route, charging a reasonable fee, without the vigourous suppression of entrepreneurship by so many government officials?  Criss-cross Canada with small-business pluck and pan-national determination. Surely we can get far more farcical than suggesting a profitable government service that supplies high-paying union jobs with good benefits and boasts a 96 to 97% punctual delivery record should be sold off to the more ‘efficient’ private sector? Perhaps, to combat the current tyrannical stance of our governments to such economical initiative, we should follow Thomas Pynchon’s forty-year old suggestion of covert civil disobedience:

“You weren’t supposed to see that,” he told them. He had an envelope. Oedipa could see, instead of a postage stamp, the handstruck initials PPS.

“Of course,” said Metzger. “Delivering the mail is a government monopoly. You would be opposed to that.”

Fallopian gave them a wry smile. “It’s not as rebellious as it looks. We use Yoyodyne’s inter-office delivery. On the sly. But it’s hard to find carriers, we have a big turnover. They’re run on a tight schedule, and they get nervous. Security people over at the plant know something’s up. They keep a sharp eye out. De Witt,” pointing at the fat mailman, who was being hauled, twitching, down off the bar and offered drinks he did not want, “he’s the most nervous one we’ve had all year.”

“How extensive is this?” asked Metzger.

“Only inside our San Narciso chapter. They’ve set up pilot projects similar to this in the Washington and I think Dallas chapters. But we’re the only one in California so far. A few of your more affluent type members do wrap their letters around bricks, and then the whole thing in brown paper, and send them Railway Express, but I don’t know . . .”

“A little like copping out,” Metzger sympathized.

“It’s the principle,” Fallopian agreed, sounding defensive. “To keep it up to some kind of a reasonable volume, each member has to send at least one letter a week through the Yoyodyne system. If you don’t, you get fined.” He opened his letter and showed Oedipa and Metzger.

Dear Mike, it said, how are you? Just thought I’d drop you a note. How’s your book coming? Guess that’s all for now. See you at The Scope.

“That’s how it is,” Fallopian confessed bitterly, “most of the time.”

—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1969)

I suppose under capitalism, even satire needs some competition.

What about Hitch?

“Believe me,” Christopher Hitchens implores us. “It’s torture.

He’s talking, of course, about waterboarding. First, the chutzpah. Most of us didn’t need Hitchens to take us glibly aside and explain in grave and serious tones that torture really was torture. ‘I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,”’ as Hitchens explains this grotesque tautology. ‘Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.’ We shall ignore the casual self-comparison to Abraham Lincoln and the moral poverty needed to believe that the question was in dispute. After all, waterboarding was declared illegal by American generals fourty years ago in Vietnam. But we shall note that Lincoln never needed to be chained, whipped or raped to realize that slavery is a sinister, evil thing.

Second:  well, more chutzpah, really. Buried in this article is the implied assumption that the question is now settled because the prodigal son has come home and repented. That Hitchens should harness some particular authority with regard to waterboarding now, because he used to think it wasn’t torture. So when he changes his mind, it’s that much more puissant. Although the gleeful chorus of “no kidding, Hitch!” is fun, and it’s always nice to see a noisome bray from the other side come over to your point of view, Hitchens’ mea culpa should be more offensive than refreshing. Guess what? We have loads of testimonies saying that waterboarding is torture.  The only difference is most of them have brown skin.

And third is the most odious of all. As skdadl cynically notes on Bread n’ Roses:

What’s next — torture tourism? As we all know, there’s nothing that capitalism can’t co-opt.

“Torture tourism” indeed. Hitchens acknowledges that he ‘could stop the process at any time’ (in the same breath as he assures us that as a coward, he ‘[dies] many times before [his] death’ because he signed an indemnification contract), but motivating his doubtless insatiable desire for the truth is the sense of entitlement and supremacy that underwrites the reasons we torture in the first place.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning.

Perhaps, Hitchens.  But this does not discount the fact that you are simulating torture (although he does distastefully joke that he might have admitted to being a hermaphrodite during his short ordeal). By simulating torture, we follow the logic of Bill Murray in What About Bob? After Richard Dreyfuss, a psychiatrist, asks Bob why he is pretending to have Tourette’s Syndrome, Bob responds: ‘Well, if I fake it—I don’t have it, right?’ Bob—and Christopher HItchens—are quite right.  As long as we have the ability—the power—to submit ourselves to torture, we never have to worry about someone else doing it against our will, however dreadful it feels. Meanwhile, governments in our names are perpetrating real torture against real bodies for nefarious purposes, with no “indeminfication” contracts. And rather than redeem them, Hitchens disgraces these victims on the pages of Vanity Fair because he reduces their pain and suffering into a spectacle for our instruction.

Where is the article in Vanity Fair—I’d even take one written by Hitchens—that visits real waterboarding victims? That visits the prisons they are tortured in? Where is the journalism that exposes the criminal practices of our governments and the inhuman abuse they inflict daily on those they call enemies? Of course, there is none, only the sombre smirk of the great thinker who has changed his mind. “Believe me, it’s torture.” Instead, Hitchens shifts our sympathies from the tragedy of the real victims to his own, puffing up his insufferable ego in the process.