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.

Margaret Wente, Serial Bigot
28 October 2008, 10:43 am
Filed under: Media | Tags: , , , ,

I have made it a habit in recent years to avoid reading Margaret Wente. But over the past few days, too many people have been doing it for me. In case you missed her latest gem: What Dick Pound said was  really dumb—and also true.

North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was “savagery.”

Wow. It’s impossible to dissect fully the Eurocentric assumptions and outright lies Wente packs into this tiny paragraph (there’s more at the link) without writing a monograph—not to mention that calmly explaining to a bigot that the First Nations were people too is an exercise in absurdity. The economical system of trade, tolls and tariffs employed by the Iroquois, Algonkian and Huron (there were, in fact, Ms. Wente, hundreds of native peoples across Canada, not some monolithic morass acting with singular purpose) was tailored to specific geographical and political needs. While surely their religious rituals might not have had the same verve as the witch-burning festival that was occurring across the ocean, these ‘savages’ enjoyed diverse and complex social and mystical systems. Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about the vast medical knowledge of the First Nations (the Aztecs, for example, kept large medicinal gardens) because Jesuit missionaries heaped scorn upon the heathens’ expertise (except when it saved them from scurvy). The Europeans were certainly superior in one medical area: their usage of biological warfare was unrivalled by the  First Nations.

I could go on. The requisite facebook group has popped up, calling for the columnist’s dismissal. I can’t agree with firing a journalist for writing a single article. Such censure amounts to censorship and creates an environment where journalists will self-censor in fear of offending the higher ups. Margaret Wente is, however, a habitually poor writer and plays fast and loose with things like ‘facts’ and ‘research’. She is wilfully reactionary, divisive and hateful and has no place in a newspaper that fancies itself ‘Canada’s’. Margaret should not be fired because of one editorial. She should be fired because she is an incompetent journalist.

But if the Globe hasn’t figured that out by now, they won’t. This is a newspaper that endorsed Stephen Harper in the last election. They endorsed an administration whose hostility to journalists and journalism is unsurpassed in Canadian history. They endorsed a government who made it their mission to dismantle and undermine every independent government body and check to executive power that exists in this country. So why should we be surprised that this editorial board supports, and indeed, encourages, a columnist like Margaret Wente?

Until we let the Globe know that in their current form they are emphatically not ‘Canada’s Newspaper’, until we show them in broad strokes that their vision, and Harper’s is not ours, they will continue to steer this country away from us, away from social justice, and away from democracy. Write to Canada’s newspaper and ask for it back.

A More Perfect Rhetoric

Game Six, 1975 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, cursed, improbable participants against Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds who had beaten their closest Rivals in the National League West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by 20 games. The game is a classic, and for good reason. It had everything: changing leads, brilliant catches, controversial calls and a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth to tie it for the home-team Red Sox.

Then comes Carlton Fisk, bottom of the twelfth. He connects with a Pat Darcy pitch and drills a swerving line drive towards left-field. The ball is heading certainly, tragically foul. But Fisk leaps up in the air, desperately flails both his his arms right, willing the ball fair. It kisses the yellow foul pole, an electric kiss, winning the greatest game ever played with a walk-off solo home run. Poetry and pandemonium.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama hit a home run of his own. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

It was a beautiful thing. A poetic, virtuoso performance turned a difficult situation—the comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—into a positive, unifying gesture. Based on some of the responses by the media, you’d have thought Obama had eradicated racism with a single speech. It was reprinted in the New York Times for chrissakes! Home run? It was a career-defining grand slam.

So imagine Obama’s confusion when Rev. Wright did not disappear after Obama opined that his comments “had the potential to widen the racial divide” and “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country [the United States].” Instead, Wright repeated his comments and insisted upon such inconvenient concepts of historical providence and poetic justice:

We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.

Obama is a skillful speaker. But despite the acclaim he earns for speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” rhetoric cannot bridge the crevasse that American history has dug for itself. In fact, tragically, such rhetoric obscures righteous attempts like those of Rev. Wright to expose such fissures in the fabric of American society and packages racial divide as a challenge we can work through and “move beyond” rather than a crisis and trauma that requires intense interrogation and wholesale reconfiguration of social relations. Obama dresses racial prejudice in the comforting guise of an “issue,” much like the vomit-inducing grandstanding of Hollywood films like Paul Haggis’s Crash; whereas Rev. Wright shines a naked light on the catastrophe of racism in America.

I do not live in America and I do not know what I would do if I was faced with the difficult choice with which progressive Americans are faced. Between two lesser evils is never a pleasant decision. But what I do know is what is at stake when Obama dismisses the just diagnosis of Rev. Wright for a more politically expedient path, however eloquent: Obama is dismissing an ally of progressives everywhere in favour of appeasement. Reverend Wright is our ally, rhetoric is not.

Carlton Fisk can sympathize with Barrack Obama’s bewilderment; after Fisk’s career-defining thunderbolt, his game-winning home run, the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the World Series two days later. Don’t mistake a single round for the match, Obama. It ain’t over, not by a long shot.

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