Blind Man with a Pistol


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.



Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.



Leading Performance

Prime Minister Harper announced his “Canada First” Defence plan this week: “The Canada First Defence Strategy will strengthen our sovereignty and security at home and bolster our ability to defend our values and interests abroad.” But, as The Ottawa Citizen points out, when the media requested a few details as to what this strategy might entail, they were rebuffed. The content of the plan, it seems, was the speech itself:

Asked about when the actual Canada First Defence Strategy was going to be released, Jay Paxton, Mr. MacKay’s press secretary, replied: “It is a strategy that you heard enunciated by the prime minister and Minister MacKay.”

“It is not a ‘document’ like a white paperit is the vision delivered today for long-term planning for the CF,” he added. “As such, the speeches are the strategy.”

The speeches are the strategy. Who says Marshall McLuhan is unfashionable? The medium is the message, Canada. “If you want to be taken seriously in the world,” Harper declared, “you need the capacity to actit’s that simple.” The insinuation is clear: “act” like you have a strategy.  Act like a leader. (After all, don’t our wars take place “in theatre”? With “actors” and “players” in leading roles?) Harper must be taking his media cues from ex-FEMA administrator Harvey E. Johnson. “Real leadership” is performative, not demonstrative.

But the implications behind Harper’s avant-garde leadership are much graver than the opportunity for mockery it affords. Just like “real leadership” is not real but imaginary, it’s very difficult to argue that organizing the Canadian Armed Forces with an eye on the current colonialist enterprise in Afghanistan is a “defence” strategy. In fact, such missions suggest that Harper’s strategy hardly puts “Canada First” either. Why bother outlining the details of your defence policy when our priorities clearly come from south of the border?

Furthermore, the largest threat to Canada’s sovereignty comes not, laughably, from Denmark or Afghanistan, but from the United States.  While surely Canada should acquire the equipment and vehicles necessary to service trade and safety issues in the North, it is ludicrous to suggest that we should enter an Arctic arms race with the United States. You would think that Harper would recognize that Canada’s best claim to the Arctic lies in its relationship with the society that has subsisted there for thousands of years: the Inuit First Nation. Investment in Inuit society would not only repay the moral debt Canada owes the Arctic’s indigenous culture after a century of neglect and abuse, but would strengthen Canada’s historical and social claim under international law. Canada’s best chance at establishing legal stewardship over the Arctic comes from cultural, not  military sovereignty.

Indeed, if you add in to the equation the erosion of Canadian cultural integrity by the commercial monolith to the south, and the ongoing transformation project of the CAF into a subsidiary of the Pentagon, the threat to our sovereignty can’t be defended with helicopters or submarines. Yet the Harper government (and the Liberal government which preceded it) has spurned every opportunity to mend relationships with Canada’s First Nations, or to solidify Canadian art and culture against interminable American influence.

Someone has to put Harper’s improv show out of its misery.

h/t to pogge.