Blind Man with a Pistol


Back Bacon

Pandemics exert a particular hold on the social imagination. From as far back as Oedipus Rex, the plague reveals the fragility of the social bond, our fear and suspicion of the necessary connection that binds us. More recently, George Romero’s  Night of the Living Dead (1968) exploits this fear—expressed in racism, sexual gaze and state coercion—to deliver a powerful social commentary in the midst of the American civil rights movement. When what we call soceity admits strange and foreign company, we question the link that shackles us together. Zombies scare us not because they are different, but because they are so like us. As both Oedipus and Duane Jones discovered to their peril, when the enemy you seek to expel is indivisible from yourself, there is no way out. Aristotle called this katharsis; Romero called it terrifying.

And so the world finds itself gripped by another pandemic scare: swine flu joins avian flu, SARS and e coli as the latest member of a list that trails back beyond the Black Plague of London. At time of writing, the CBC website boasts no less than fourteen links to swine-flu-related stories. I have no knowledge or understanding of pandemic as a medical reality, and I would never minimize the over 150 confirmed deaths suffered in Mexican communities as a result of the disease. Moreover, I do not question Dr. David Butler-Jones’s assertion that Swine flu is likely to worsen in Canada. However, I do question the focus of the stories issuing from this media frenzy.

Despite the vast number of articles swirling about the pandemic scare, very few of them seem to be actually about the Mexican victims, or reflecting the grief shared by the affected communities. This is in stark distinction to the commiserating stories that followed the nearly 300 dead in the L’Aquila earthquake earlier this month, or the Australian bushfires that claimed more than 200 lives. Instead, we are assaulted with stories that tell us if our state borders are safe: Infected Scottish couple ‘doing OK’, With [US] Swine Flu Cases Rising, Borders are Tightening, and Canadian Health Officials Warn against travel to Mexico. Why are two slightly ill people from Falkirk earning more column inches than the devastated community that forms the epicentre of this global crisis?

A few people are trying to answer these questions. David Kirby at HuffPo draws links between Mexico’s factory farms and the illness:

As Philpott pointed out in his post, Mexican newspapers have been reporting for weeks that residents living near Granjas Carroll’s massive hog facility at La Gloria are falling ill with severe upper respiratory diseases. One five-year-old girl in the village just tested positive for swine flu – the bodies of two more children who died recently are being exhumed.

According to an April 5 article in La Jornada newspaper, “Clouds of flies emanate from the lagoons where Granjas Carroll discharges the fecal waste from its hog barns – as well as air pollution that has already caused an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town.”

More than 400 people had already been treated for respiratory infections, and more than 60 percent of the town’s 3,000 residents had reported getting sick, the paper said. State officials disputed that claim, and said the illnesses were caused by cold weather and dust in the air.

The Guardian forwards a similar possibility, targeting the world’s largest pig-meat producer, Smithfield:

Smithfield, which is led by pork baron Joseph W Luter III, has previously been fined for environmental damage in the US. In October 2000 the supreme court upheld a $12.6m (£8.6m) fine levied by the US environmental protection agency which found that the company had violated its pollution permits in the Pagan River in Virginia which runs towards Chesapeake Bay. The company faced accusations that faecal and other bodily waste from slaughtered pigs had been dumped directly into the river since the 1970s .

The outbreak of respiratory illness in the area of the Granjas Carroll plant was first detected at the beginning of this month by Veratect, a company based in Washington state which monitors the spread of disease and pandemics around the world for corporate clients.

On 6 April it reported local officials had declared a health alert. According to its dispatch: “Sources characterised the event as a ‘strange’ outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to pneumonia in some paediatric cases. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population, approximately 1,800 cases, has been affected.”

It’s a connection that appears, to the non-medical eye at least, as blindingly obvious. Kettle together shit, swine, flies and workers close enough for long enough, and the result will be nasty. So now that an American corporation, driven by Western appetite for cheap pork loin has created what the chairman of the state legislature’s Committee on the Environment, Marco Antonio Núñez López, called ‘focos rojos‘ (translated by Kirby as ‘breeding grounds’ or ‘hot spots’) for a disease spreading to Canada, the United States and abroad, our response is to circle the wagons, tighten our borders, ostracize and  incriminate Mexico. A familiar narrative to say the least.

In a final bit of irony, Canada has tightened screening procedure for Mexican seasonal workers coming up during the summer to fill Canada’s casual labour void. There are no plans yet to bar workers, 15 000 of whom work on fruit, vegetable and dairy farms throughout the summer every year. So now that our sociopathic food industry and insatiable consumerism has created a diseased cesspool which our liberal sensibilities forbid us from implementing on our doorstep, relegated  instead to the conveniently inconspicuous and less ‘civilized’ Latin America, we forbid the casual labourers we desperately need from working in our ‘enlightened’ agriculture industry; thereby, in all likelihood, encouraging them to take up work in the more unsafe and unhygienic environment of Mexico. Like Oedipus, we keep trying to find the culprit behind the crime but all the evidence repeatedly, and quite awkwardly, points back at us. And, like Duane Jones in Romero’s Living Dead, we might survive the onslaught of pandemic only to be thwarted by our own incompetent, shortsighted and paranoid state.

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Police on my Back

If you are a British citizen, you should be furious. The severe and brazen violence exercised by the London Metropolitan police upon its citizens during and after the G20 protests is the direct result of unbridled and rampant expansion of executive and coercive powers of the British state. The cream of the crop such expansion has sown is the alarming murder of Ian Tomlinson, a non-protestor who was batonned while walking away from police with his hands in his pockets. If you are a person of colour in Britian, this observation probably comes as no surprise. But the difference now is that the thugs responsible have been caught on tape. Indeed, one of the most disturbing revelations to come out of the profuse video evidence is that when  a police officer backhanded Nicola Fisher at a vigil for Tomlinson’s death, she remonstrated “Do you realise there are three film crews filming you?”  The police officer, who had his badge number obscured so as to evade identification, responded by swinging a baton at her knees.

There is no end to the outrage these incidents should effect. The 2005 murder by police of Charles De Menezes and the recent inquest revealed police tactics: lie, obfuscate and impede justice until the evidence is so indisputable that backpedalling becomes unavoidable. The six officers responsible remain on the force. It appears that this strategy has become standard policy. Police announced the ‘death’ more than three hours after it occured, with an additional insidious claim that protestors impeded health care workers from accessing Tomlinson. Although the IPCC knew that Tomlinson had had contact with the police, they did not inform Tomlinson’s family. An inquiry was not launched until the Guardian published a video showing Tomlinson walking away from officers with his hands in his pockets, severely beaten to the ground in an unprovoked attack by London’s finest. An initial pathologist report, also delayed, conducted by Dr Freddy Patel who, it was later revealed, was twice reprimanded for dubious ethical behaviour, concluded Tomlinson died of a ‘heart-attack’. A second postmortem discovered Tomlinson died instead of internal bleeding. There should only be one question echoing through Scotland Yard and the British public right now:  How is this not murder?

Britain is a world leader in CCTV cameras, keeping a policing and surveillant eye on its public. It has baselessly and dangerously expanded the maximum time police can detain a terror suspect, first to 28 days in 2005 (after Tony Blair requested a 90-day period), then briefly to 42 days in 2008 before it was defeated after public and opposition party outcry. The next longest detention period by a Western democracy is Australia with 12. The list goes on: national ID cards, DNA databases and municipal politicians who have access to police surveillance to spy on innocent civilians and local political rivals. The unrelenting result of these coercive policies is a police force that has come to conceive of its executive power as inviolate, boundless and absolute.

Big Brother is not only the most popular show on British television, it is the archetype by which the state models its public policy. Now that Britain has seen the fruits of these oppressive labours, it is time to take them back. Of course, the task is much more difficult now that a culture of surveillance and coercion is firmly established, but the British public has seen its closed-circuit image and it does not like what it sees. It is important now more than ever to honour the deaths of De Menezes and Tomlinson by reclaiming our right to public autonomy and show these thugs the door.



The Mote in our Conscience

US President Barack Obama has released classified memos that reveal administrative approval of waterboarding and sleep deprivation, among other tactics, in the interrogation of terror suspects by the CIA. The Obama administration has rightfully denounced such crimes as torture. I don’t know all the details about American and Canadian participation and complicity in the torture of terror suspects, but I know someone who does. For those details, read skdadl at pogge.

But this post is not about the horror we feel once we realize the inhumanity our governments have inflicted in our names—such a reaction should be quick and visceral. Besides, we’ve known about these crimes for some time. What is alarming about the memos is the legal sleight-of-hand they effect to render torture lawful. And, equally alarming, is Obama’s insistence that:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carrying out their duties relying in good faith upon the legal advice from the department of justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

We’ve heard this before, of course. CIA agents who forced terror suspects to believe they were drowning, who exploited deep-seated phobias to glean unreliable information, and who caused such untold mental and physical duress to enemies of the state that they are now immune to prosecution, overrode any ethical qualms they may or may not have held simply by surrendering to the steely rule of law. Adolf Eichmann made a similar appeal in his war crimes tribunal in front of the Supreme Court of Israel:

It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. The guilt for the mass murder is solely that of the political leaders… I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office, and in addition, once the war started, there was also martial law….

I accuse the leaders of abusing my obedience. At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate. Obedience is commended as a virtue. May I therefore ask that consideration be given to the fact that I obeyed, and not whom I obeyed.

It is understandable for Eichmann to make this plea: he was fighting for his life. It is less forgiveable for Obama to do so. Essentially, Obama is condoning that actors of the state abandon their own sense of judgement for another, as if the law is a cold, literal thing, handed down to us by mystics and soothsayers who conjure truth out of an impenatrable lexicon we cannot hope to understand. Is not asking for ‘good faith’ in the ‘legal advice’ of experts not an act of theology?

There’s another man who justified his warmongering with cold literalism. When the Archbishop of Cantebury advises Prince Hal, now King Henry, to invade France based on a specious and tortuous claim to the throne (which, incidentally, has something to do with the fact that Hal’s great-great grandmother was a daughter of the King of France, and hence under English law, but not French law, Hal’s claim has legs) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he equivocates until Cantebury assures him that if his logic is not correct, ‘The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!’  Only once he can abrogate responsibility under the guise of faith (in both literal law and in his religious advisors) will he exercise his ambition in a logic that confounds readers and audience members to this day.

Shakespeare may well support Hal and earnestly attempt to legitimize the morality of a highly questionable invasion, but his concept of the law is clear. When Hal camouflauges his royalty and infiltrates his army’s camp before the battle of Agincourt, he meets two soldiers who are troubled by the legitimacy of their actions, but take solace, like Eichmann, in obedience:

we know enough, if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.

This line would appear to suffice for Eichmann, and indeed, for Obama. But not, I think, for the King. He does not agree:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services…Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience.

The law, then, is dialectic: it is in the service of society and of ourselves. The King himself says no less in his famous exhortation at Agincourt, the climax of the play and articulation of the play’s conception of obedience and law:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

The equalities and parallels drawn between the gentlest and vilest of our society justifies the King’s claims on his men: while the King might be culpable of reckless warmongering, the cohesion of this relationship never falters. Only a just cause validates the relationship. Justice issues from solidarity and trust. It is oceanic, and total: resolute, not absolute.

Such a relationship cannot be said to exist under Eichmann or under George W. Bush. Their ruling impeteus is clear: these are the facts, and you shall obey. Can the CIA agents who practiced waterboarding on terror suspects say that every mote has been washed out of his conscience?  Can Obama? By absolving these actors on the basis of their obedience to faulty logic and mystifying legal machinations, Obama has done nothing to restore public and international trust to a diseased system. To revitalize the law, the United States needs to resituate on principles of solidarity, communion and individual culpability. At times, it seems the law is as fragile as it is robust. Those who have committed these crimes need to face justice and those who can effect as much need to stop shielding them with the law.



Apology Accepted
24 March 2009, 12:53 pm
Filed under: Imperialism, Media | Tags: , , , , ,

Peter McKay got the apology he demanded from Fox News after the late-night show Red Eye mocked the Canadian military on the day four more soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. I find it incredible that a senior Canadian politician would even comment about what four idiots on an American sideshow Fox have to say about Canadian foreign policy, let alone demand an apology.

The public response (or ‘outrage’ to use the common parlance) too has been massive: letters to the editor, you tube comments, the mandatory facebook groups. I’ve never heard of Red Eye before, but after watching the clip, I would wager this latest horrorshow doesn’t make the top ten of offensive things ‘discussed’ on the show. Why, then, has this clip so engaged the Canadian public imagination?

If Canada had a principled armed forces that obeyed international consensus and the tenets of social justice; if it didn’t engage in fantasies of colonialist occupation as a lapdog sidekick for a bullying fading superpower; if Canada had a defence strategy that was actually based on defence rather than attack, we could stick to our convictions and rightly dismiss these Fox News hacks as so much detritus from a fading regime.

Instead, Canada has found that when they join a game they cannot play, a game that is obnoxious, odious and criminal, they are roughly treated by the very gang of obnoxious and odious criminals that invited them in. And so we respond cravenly, slavishly, shocked that these thugs do not lavish us with purple praise for obediently heeding America’s call. Why else would we care what this bunch of jokers think? Because it is the respect and acknowledgement of precisely these jokers and their lot that we crave. Instead, they call us as we are: a warmonger with no army, a conqueror with no horse. This mocking is righteous and deserved. It is the weed our governments, who desperately covet a place on the world stage, have sown, and now it has gone to seed.

Thank you for your apology, Mr. Fox. Now back to work.



Liberals Can’t Read

I don’t usually deal with party politics on this site, but in this case I will make an exception. As many of you probably don’t know, in the last budget, the Conservative government tried to ideologically hack research funding for the social sciences and the humanities by stipulating that money given to support doctorate research through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) be ‘focused on business-related degrees’.  You see, when Stephen Harper was roughly chastised for his Arts-hating policies last year, culminating with his statement that ‘ordinary folks don’t care about the Arts’, he didn’t give up. As Peter McKay would say, (Conservative) Canadians don’t cut and run. Instead, he took out his overnight bag and put some lipstick on that pig. Postgrads? No one cares about those entitled, clueless (and non-voting) kids. Postgrads in the humanities? Well, you don’t need to have read Jacques Derrida to deconstruct that move.

Hundreds of PhD students put down their mochaccinos and took notice. Unwilling to ditch Jane Austen for Ayn Rand, or Islam for Scientology, graduate students did pretty much everything that accounts for student activism these days: they started a facebook group.

It got some attention. Aside from the above Globe and Mail article (better late than never, I suppose), NDP MP and post-secondary education critic Niki Ashton started a petition against the funding change and has promised to fight it in the House. Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, responded with some mealy-mouthed interpretation that claimed SSHRC had always valued business-related degrees, but neglected to explain if SSHRC would now focus exclusively on them. Frankly, things were not looking good.

But, we graduate students had an ace in the hole: Michael Ignatieff. Iggy. Rhodes Scholar and Harvard academic. A man who knows the true value of a postgraduate education in the humanities. I knew if I wrote to the eminent leader of our opposition, he would hear me. He would understand. And he would lift us up from where Harper had brought us low. Yesterday, he finally wrote me back (he must have been busy). Here’s what he had to say:

Thank you for your letter regarding the federal funding of research in Canada.

The Liberal Party of Canada has always recognized the importance of supporting research in science and technology. Former Liberal governments have created powerful tools to reinvigorate public research: the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, Genome Canada and the Indirect Costs Program for Canada’s colleges and universities.

Er, ok. Maybe this is a form letter, and he’ll get to us English students later. That’s okay! I support research in science too!

In contrast, the Conservative governments’ recent budget demonstrates its failure to grasp the importance of scientific research for creating the jobs of tomorrow. Three national research granting councils, which play essential roles in funding the scientists who conduct the research, will be subjected to “efficiency and focusing” cuts over the next three years. Equally disturbing, the budget failed to provide Genome Canada with new funding, obstructing the multi-year process of engaging talented Canadian scientists and private-sector partners in the next research cycle.

Be assured that the Liberal Party will work relentlessly to push this government into making long-term commitments to science, research and innovation. We will raise this issue in the House of Commons, pressuring the government to send a clear message that our country is in this for the long haul.

By allowing our scientists to make long term plans government sends the signal that it really does believe in what they are doing, and, more importantly, that it understand the nature of their work. Long term, predictable support provides our scientists with the tools they need to do their work. It also communicates that we want our scientists to stay in Canada, and, moreover, that we want scientists from the rest of the world to come here to work.

I have to say, at this point, I was getting a little worried. I didn’t get the impression that ‘social scientists’ were included in Iggy’s noun. But, my patience was finally awarded and my serious concerns addressed:

This support must extend to all forms of research – engineering and natural sciences, medicine and life sciences, the humanities and social sciences.

Yesss! There I am!

It is not appropriate for government to impose constraints on which forms of research are more likely to be funded. Such a policy – valuing applied science over fundamental science that has less obvious commercial value – is shortsighted and wrong.

Okay, I’m not sure why he went back to applied science vs. fundamental (??) science, although there does seem to be a disapproving gesture towards business-related degrees. Kind of.

Thank you again for sharing your views on this important matter.

The Office of the Leader of the Opposition

It’s like I always say. Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s just nothing outside the text.

Title taken from skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.

ETA: it seems that Mr. Ignatieff’s letter is in response to the recent revelation that Stephen Harper’s Science Minister doesn’t belive in Science. While I suppose it is good that our opposition is fighting the ignorance entrenched in our government, I wonder why Iggy thought my letter about funding in the humanities deserved to be included in his response. Worse, I wonder if I would have received a response at all if Harper’s Laurel and Hardy show hadn’t decided to premier its latest act. Actually, scratch that, I don’t wonder.



Sunset Song

The Scottish government has abandoned its plans to lease up to 25 % of its crown forests to private companies. Perhaps they’ve learned something after all. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the great socialist author of the trilogy A Scots Quair (1932, 1933, 1934) had something to say the last time Scotland tried to mortgage its future for the present.

Chae went round all Kinraddie on his leave that time and found changes enough to open his eyes, maybe he was fell wearied with the front, folk thought, there was nothing on there but their pleitering and fighting. And the first change he saw the first morning, did Chae, lying down on his bed for the pleasure of it and Kirsty at the making of his breakfast. And Chae sat up in his bed to reach for his pipe when he looked from the window and he gave a great roar; and he louped from his bed in his sark so that Kirsty came running and crying What is’t? Is’t a wound?

But she found Chae standing by the window then, cursing himself black in the face he was, and he asked how long had this been going? So Mistress Strachan looked out the way he looked and she saw it was only the long bit wood that ran by the Peesie’s Knapp that vexed him, it was nearly down the whole stretch of it, now. It made a gey difference to the look-out faith! but fine for Kinraddie the woodmen had been, they’d lodged at the Knapp and paid high for their board. But Chae cried out To hell with their board, the bastards, they’re ruining my land, do you hear! And he pulled on his trousers and boots and would fair have run over the park and been at them; but Kirsty caught at his sark and held him back and cried Have you fair gone mad with the killing of Germans?

And he asked her hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that the wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the north-east now, and was fair the end of a living here. And Mistress Strachan answered up that she wasn’t a fool, and they’d be no worse than the other folk, would they? all the woods in Kinraddie were due to come down. Chae shouted What, others? and went out to look; and when he came back he didn’t shout at all, he said he’d often minded of them out there in France, the woods, so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle. Nor more than that would he say, it seemed then to Kirsty that he quietened down, and was quiet and queer all his leave, it was daft to let a bit wood go vex him like that.

But the last night of his leave he climbed to Blawearie and he said there was nothing but the woods and their fate that could draw his eyes. For over by the Mains he’d come on the woodmen, teams and teams of them hard at work on the long bit forest that ran up the high brae, sparing nothing they were but the yews of the Manse. And up above Upperhill they had cut down the larch, and the wood was down that lay back of old Pooty’s.

Folk had told him the trustees had sold it well, they got awful high prices, the trustees did, it was wanted for aeroplanes and such-like things. And over at the office he had found the factor and the creature had peeked at Chae through his horn-rimmed glasses and said that the Government would replant all the trees when the War was won. And Chae had said that would console him a bloody lot, sure, if he’d the chance of living two hundred years and seeing the woods grow up as some shelter for beast and man: but he doubted he’d not last so long. Then the factor said they must all do their bit at a sacrifice, and Chae asked And what sacrifices have you made, tell me, you scrawny wee mucker?…

Early in the year, about May that was, the rain came down and it seemed it never would end, there was nothing to be done out of doors, the rain came down from the north-east across Kinraddie and Chris wasn’t the only one that noted its difference from other years. In Peesie’s Knapp there was Mistress Strachan vexing herself in trying to make out the change; and then she minded what Chae had said would happen when the woods came down, once the place had been sheltered and lithe, it poised now upon the brae in whatever storm might come. The woodmen had all finished by then, they’d left a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army. Looking out on those storms that May Chris could hardly believe that this was the place she and Will had watched from the window that first morning they came to Blawearie.

— Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)




Laura Palmer, RIP
25 February 2009, 1:46 pm
Filed under: Television | Tags: , , , , ,

On February 24, 1989, Pete Martell, Dr. Will Hayward and Sheriff Harry S. Truman found Laura Palmer washed up on the beach, and were moved to bring in the greatest criminal investigator ever seen on film or television, Special Agent Dale Cooper. To celebrate, I’m going to have a cup of coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night, and two eggs, over hard. (I know, don’t tell me; it’s hard on the arteries, but old habits die hard — just about as hard as I want those eggs. Bacon, super-crispy. Almost burned. Cremated. That’s great. And, I’ll have the grapefruit juice, just as long as those grapefruits…are freshly squeezed). And to finish up, I’ll probably have a piece of cherry pie for dessert, in the place where pies go when they die.

When we found out our beloved Laura was dead, we were never the same again.