Category Archives: politics

The Cultural Studies Drinking Game (TM)

Controversy surrounding an alleged ‘art’ student, who shall remain anonymous, at least in my little world, suddenly took me back to my own university days. There was much controversy, blah blah blah, then a ‘manifesto’ – just like real artists have (at least back in the 20s) – that seemed to be cribbed directly from my old student reading material.

I studied Communications which unfortunately also involved Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. This stuff would be perfectly familiar to any one who took Feminist studies, anthropology and probably most senior-level arts classes too.

I say unfortunately in the sense that it was often a rather tedious challenge to get through a lot of obfuscation and unnecessary abstraction to the the actual ideas, some of which could be pretty insightful and interesting. For example, the concept of ‘hegemony’ the way it is used in Cultural Studies/critical theory is quite good, but rarely do people outside that realm have any idea what you’re talking about if you use the term.

However there’s a tendency for certain academics, and even more so their students, to hide weak ideas (or none) behind confusing and important seeming words in order to come across as intellectual. It really is so bad that Physics Professor Alan Sokal submitted an utterly fake paper to a then non-peer reviewed journal that was subsequently published.

Years later I had a room-mate who was growing frustrated with his International Relations courses – largely stumbling through the all the extraneous verbiage. Unfortunately for him, he lacked the filter in his brain that could just shut this stuff out. Most of it is neo-marxist tripe of one sort or another, some of which has some merits, but some of which is often just a hodgepodge of postmodern terminology that when actually ‘deconstructed’ can be nearly void of any actual meaning, or coherent train of thought beyond vague and dubious claims of western Imperialism.

So in the honour of my former struggling-student roommate and the spoiled Yalie, I’ve decided to invent the “cultural studies drinking game” (or if you prefer, the “critical theory drinking game”), which after 30 seconds of Googling, I’ve confirmed has not already been invented by someone else and is therefore mine.

Fiction – when referring to anything other than a book that is not non-fiction: pretend to take one shot

Myth – unless debunking a widely held belief such as changing lightbulbs will stop global warming: one swig of beer.

Ambiguity – one shot. Maybe

Adding ‘ity’ or ‘ities’ to any adjective in an attempt to turn it into a noun: e.g. ‘domestic’ vs ‘domesticity’ : two shots.

Adding any other extra syllables to any common word to make it sound more ‘academic’ – one shot per each syllable.

Relation to power or ruling class – everyone takes a shot.

Social construction – see ambiguity

Oppressive State Apparatus/Instrument of State Apparatus – throw your shot glass at the person sitting opposite

Appropriation – take the drink of the person to your right. If used in the same phrase as “class relation”, then three shots.

Discourse – everyone yells ‘chug chug chug!’ while you swallow the remainder of whatever is in your glass.

Consciousness – you’ve now lost consciousness from drinking too much. And you’ve only read two paragraphs.  Game over.

Funding for religious schools… and a L’shanah tovah

Only time and an election will tell whether Tory the Tory’s proposal to fund separate schools for all religions will get him voted in or is the serious blunder that McGuinty and so on are counting on.

I still don’t know who I’ll vote for (or if) in this election… I don’t have any interest in the NDP, particularly for my local constituency, have little use for this Liberal administration, but just when I was seriously tempted to vote conservative for the first time in my life, Tory blows it with the announcement that he’s in favour of separate, taxpayer-funded schools for all religions.  Then he went on to compound the blunder by coming out of the closet (albeit temporarily) as a creationist.  Let’s leave the ‘monkey trials’ for Kansas and the other bible belt states for now, eh?

I don’t even agree with the separate Catholic school board. There should be public – which is public in the truest possible sense – and private, in which the individual parent has to pay for the privilege of segregating their precious child from the godless riff-raff. Or the churches, already blessed with tax-free status, can pay for it.  I’d even support a ‘religious’ class as part of the curriculum – based on local demographics – as the first class in the morning, where the parents can either have their kid take a class in their respective religion, and the secular parents can sleep in an extra forty-five minutes.

However, if politicians are really interested in religious ‘fairness’, then here is my humble suggestion:

Every major religious holiday should be a statutory holiday, just like Christmas and Easter are. At the very least, the following should be included:

  • Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year – today)
  • Yom Kippur (Jewish and to a lesser extent, Muslim – next Friday)
  • Eid ul-Fitr (Muslim, end of Ramadan)
  • Muharram (Muslim New Year)
  • Diwali (Hindu festival of lights)

McGuinty struck a chord when he shamelessly proposed a ‘Family Day’ in February and although I am certainly not against that concept, I really do think that it’s only fair, in the name of religious and cultural inclusiveness, of course, to publicly observe all the major holidays of the major religions first.

Panhandlers, homeless and crime in Toronto

Media coverage of a recent stabbing death by a group of youths has brought the issue of panhandling in Toronto to the fore, including calls for banning the activity altogether. There are already laws against ‘aggressive pan-handling’. Last time I looked, stabbing someone was also illegal.

I’m not in favour of panhandling by any means. I never give to beggars, and I’ve chided the odd friend I’ve been with who has given to them. I really do believe that giving only makes the problem worse. At the same time, I do not think that banning it altogether would be at all effective.

Why? First off, ‘aggressive’ panhandling is already illegal. It just isn’t enforced enough to deter the activity. Just because there is a law on the books doesn’t mean the behaviour will stop. Secondly, any attempt to curtail the ‘right’ to panhandling will, I guarantee, be met with fierce opposition, and most likely a couple of lawsuits. There’s a substantial amount of case law that protects begging under ‘free speech’. It’s just not worth the effort to try to introduce, and without the assured backing of the courts, not worth it for the police to make a serious attempt to enforce.

There is, however, a very serious and worsening problem with panhandling and homelessness in Toronto. In five years, my life hasn’t changed that much. I’ve worked at the same job, hung around the same areas, lived in the same vicinity. For five years I’ve walked the same streets nearly every day, and see many people come and go along with a few hard-core regulars that my husband has seen around since he was in high school in the late 80s.

There seems to be a lot more panhandlers this year than ever before. Though oddly, I pass by fewer people sleeping outside on the streets than I did last summer. The city of Toronto recently launched a ‘study’ of panhandlers in the downtown area, though the part of Queen Street where the stabbing occurred falls outside the area.

I’d like to see the results of the study. But most of all, I’d be interested in knowing: where do they all come from? The most curious thing about the most recent high-profile crime is that three of the four were from the US. If it turns out that the majority on the streets of Toronto are not actually from Toronto it would certainly bolster Mayor Miller’s case for uploading responsibility for social services back onto the province. Or even the feds – doesn’t immigration fall under their domain? Why should the Toronto taxpayer be expected to fund a group lazy kids from California?

I’m acquainted with one guy who’s a panhandler, though I don’t see him much any more. In some aspects, he fits the stereotypical beggar quite well, in other aspects, he does not. He does have a place to live, though it’s in a lousy part of town. He has mental health issues, though he is not an alcoholic or a drug addict. He’s had people offer him work and has declined. But he really is a ‘lost soul’; I can’t see him being able to function in any sort of workplace environment beyond the most menial sort of labour. And he doesn’t have the health that that sort of labour requires. He most likely doesn’t eat enough. Certainly not anything nutritious. He pans for various reasons – sometimes out of necessity, though it also seems to be the only way he knows how to get extra money. He mostly supports himself on welfare, though most people forget that with a diagnosis of mental illness one qualifies for ‘disability’, which has more entitlements than regular welfare does. It’s not an amount I’d ever want to live on though.

The biggest problem with homelessness and with panhandling is that each issue is far from simple. There is no single cause of either, and therefore, no single solution. Each person who ends up on the streets, either to sleep or to beg for change is there for a different reason. Some are old, and haggard. Pretty much unemployable. Some are serious alcoholics. Some are obnoxious and have alienated all around them, while others are beaten down and forgotten by everyone. Some people just need some guidance that no one has provided them, others need chronic support that in the long run is likely cheaper for society to pay for than not, and all that some probably need a swift kick in the ass.

The second biggest problem is that so many people – and so many policy makers, it seems, refuse to acknowledge the complexity and instead call for simpler and therefore ultimately ineffective solutions.

The ‘right’ seem to think that each person is entirely responsible for their destiny and tolerate no excuses. But they don’t tend to have grown up poor, or fully understand how profound and resistant to change even psychological barriers are. There’s this ‘I got mine’ mentality that seems to penetrate through every facet of being. They tend to forget the ways in which the average taxpayer supports their quality of life. Corporate welfare is ignored or played down. Or it’s ‘good for the economy’.

Those on the ‘left’ refuse to admit that some people are fully deserved of their lot. Some people really are lazy, irresponsible and selfish, and will game the system for whatever they can. There are limited resources, or at least limits to the voters’ and the taxpayers’ patience. There’s plenty of money to go around if you add up all the funds and revenue from the various social service agencies and charities and such. A lot of it is miss-spent. Where does all the money go that the churches collect? Or the United Way for that matter? Why do temporary shelters cost half millions of dollars to run each year? How do you really get people off the drugs so that they can function – and do they want to? If people flock from all over Canada and end up on Toronto streets, what entitles them to be subsidized by the Toronto taxpayer?  Why not just stick them on a bus back to their home town?

Until these sorts of questions are answered – honestly – there will continue to be homeless and panhandlers in Toronto. Then there will be the rare, high profile crime that brings those issues to national attention again, along with more cries of banning this or that, or for funding this or that. And then a few weeks will pass, then months, and some other item in the news will distract people and on it goes.

More thoughs on the Toronto shootings and the roundup of gangsters

I posted an item the other day after the announcement of the various police raids that were conducted all over Toronto, rounding up suspected gang members.
The basic points I made are that little will change regardless of how many arrests are made, or guns are seized, or government funding is thrown into bad neighbourhoods until A: drugs are legalised and B: parents or other adult role models start getting serious about dealing with the very serious problems that a lot of kids growing up in bad neighbourhoods have to face.

One point I forgot to make as well is this: is conducting such a mass roundup really the way to ingratiate the local community into wanting to cooperate with the police? Or is it likely to further alienate most of its members? Although the ‘don’t snitch’ code of silence is ultimately self-defeating, it’s hard to blame people who feel they are the victims of injustice. I would imagine that being the subject of a raid would be a terrifying ordeal, particularly to impressionable young children. Being witness to a single incident such as that can undo years of community outreach efforts.

However, I find it terribly ironic that the sister of one of the high profile victims was herself arrested in the sweep, facing gun charges. Of course, that’s not to say she’s actually guilty of anything – she may have just been caught up in a very wide net. That’s for the courts to decide, and if she’s exonerated, hopefully it would be just as widely reported. But if one is to demand government inquiries into youth violence it’s best to be sure that your own kids aren’t hanging around the wrong sort of people first.

One of the biggest problems with parents, it appears to be, and as outlined in this Globe and Mail article, is flat-out denial. At least in those instances though, the parents were not involved in criminal activity themselves. However, according to one gang expert, Michael Chettleburgh, some of the gang members involved in recruiting younger members will often be uncles, cousins or older siblings. In such cases it makes it even harder for parents to do much apart from turn a blind eye. Familial ties and a not-misplaced sense of loyalty will often deter people from seeking outside help even if they were to want to. As this blog points out, blind not-my-kid parenting is not just a problem with poor families either. Where income disparity really does rear its ugly head is when the poor kids get rounded up.  The rich ones can get access to better lawyers and hide in ‘American Beauty’-land.

What may be needed is some sort of resources for parents to turn to that perhaps don’t have to involve the legal process, but where they can have other sorts of means to help set their kids straight.

However, the real solution isn’t rounding up everyone and throwing them in jail. It might temporarily make authorities look good, but as long as the same problems remain – bad families and the demand for illegal drugs and the accompanying violence driving out legitimate opportunities – new gangs will flourish to fill the void left by the old, and more violence will follow.

Where can I apply for that $100K position?

Yesterday the Ontario Government released it’s list of individuals earning over $100,000: now nearly 34,000 people, and reportedly a 24% increase over last year. This might go some way towards why taxes always seem to go up while services go down. The Conservatives will just say they need to cut services that help the poor while the NDP will say more (tax) money is needed.

Ironically, the Ontario’s Public Sector Disclosure Act was passed presumably because public scrutiny would force public employees to rein in their pay demands.

Guess it didn’t work.

The Toronto Sun outlines the pay of some people in 1996, when it was first introduced, and this past year. Even factoring inflation and rises in the cost of living the increases in both salaries and those earning above the threshold are out of whack.

One explanation could be that with people now knowing what their co-workers, or their compatriots in other departments made, they actually increased their demands. And when year over year there didn’t appear to be the supposedly anticipated public outrage, they perhaps realised it was quite easy to get away with. Sure, there will be the flurry of critical articles that will be buried within a couple of days, or commentary from the odd blogger or taxpayers’ group, but for the most part, people don’t seem to get all that upset. Certainly not enough for anything to change. Perhaps with an estimated 300,000 people working for the provincial or municipal government or crown corporation in some capacity, some presumably with the hopes of promotion (and counting their dependent family members too) there may just be too many people whose insterests are more in line with keeping the salaries high or increasing them over those whose interests would be in restricting them.

Perhaps the Tories figured that all along when they introduced the Act. It would make them look good – fit with their image of looking after the taxpayer, fiscal scrutiny and so on, but meanwhile accomplishing the reverse of what was supposedly intended.

Here’s has a handy link to the list itself. Some of the salaries for some of the job titles seem reasonable. If someone doing a job is compensated similarly to how they would be in the private sector, fair enough. But a look through some of the job titles leads me to think that’s possibly not always the case.

For example, read through the list, and look at the number of jobs for Executive Director. Funny, I always understood that Executive Director was mostly an admin position requiring a college diploma. Now it can be hard work (I filled in briefly as one about eight years ago) and there’s a lot to juggle, but it does it warrent six figures? Especially if those six figures are paid for by the taxpayer. To see how compensation for this title compares to the non-profit sector in the US, I took a look at a website called Payscale.com. The median salary for an Executive Director in the US with more than twenty years experience was $73,000.

We’re always told that schools never have enough money. Kids are stuck out in drafty portables, after school programs are closed due to lack of funding, basic building maitenance is neglected. Perhaps the money might be well-deserved for the odd inner-city principal, but for managers and administrators?

Another area that is always supposedly underfunded is healthcare. Now running a hospital might be a very demanding, challenging job. But Dalton McGuinty runs the whole province on $147,000. Meanwhile, the Hospital for Sick Children chief executive earns $563,061.

Some of these jobs listed probably do demand a high level of skill and specialisation. Heck, there’s probably a few who are underpaid for what they do. But others might just be the right person’s brother-in-law or old college roommate.

Keep in mind, that this is only the salaries that pay over $100K and are required to be disclosed. It would be interesting to know the number of employees and their job descriptions in the $90K salary range and are kept under the threshold. It would also be one thing if the top paid officials were doing an excellent job. But that’s not always the case, as this article in the Toronto Star points out.

I encourage everyone to look at the list for themselves and the sometimes dubious job titles. And think about it the next time there’s a hospital fundraiser, or a rise in energy rates or cries that there’s not enough money to fix a crumbling school or improve hospital wait-times. Afterall, you and I are paying for them.

How safe are YOU

The media get blamed for a lot of social problems that they’re not really responsible for, such as anorexia in teenage girls, violent behaviour in children, cigarette smoking and so on.

However, there is one thing I think can be blamed squarely on ‘The Media’: the public’s distorted perception of risk. Granted, with the rise of the internet ‘The Media’ is a lot more complex and amorphous than it was even ten years ago, but often the same distortions that make the headlines on the local news channel are mirrored online. For every atm scam that makes it to the evening news on CP24, there are five that I get via email.

Not everyone knows about snopes.com or thinks to check it every time they see or get emailed a scare story. Though they probably should. Or at the very least, understand that ‘The Media’ is really the world’s biggest Drama Queen.

Take terrorism, for example.

According to a study by HealthyAmericans.org, seventy percent of Americans ranked chemical terrorism as a major concern in 2007. Never mind the odds of anywhere in the US being the subject of such an attack for now, or the fact that if you combined the populations of all the major cities that could possibly be victim to such an attack it wouldn’t add up to anywhere near 70% of the US population.

Instead, just take the real-life scenario of a chemical attack that did happen, under the worst-case scenario, which took place almost 12 years ago to the date I post this. Picture one of the most crowded places, most populous cities in the world – Tokyo, Japan. Then picture an attack using one of the scariest chemicals of them all – nerve gas. Then imagine it being released in the scariest of all urban places – subway stations full of commuters at one of the busiest times of the day. Not just one attack either, but FIVE. How many people died as a result of the attacks – that occured in one of the most densely populated parts of the world? TWELVE.

So even under the worst-case scenario of something that’s highly unlikely to happen the first place, the odds of dying from it are still miniscule.

Another scare story making the rounds is Bird Flu. This is probably something that is cause for concern – for birds. For people? Not so much.

How is The Media to blame for this? Take this headline as an example, from one of the world’s most reputable news sources, the BBC. The headline reads: Bird flu ‘could kill 150m people’. A hundred and fifty MILLION? Holy crap!

Then take a look at the sub-heading: A flu pandemic could happen at any time and kill between 5-150 million people, a UN health official has warned.

The BBC, not known for being a scare-mongering tabloid, took the highest, scariest number and plugged it into the headline.

That headline was from about 18 months ago. How many people has it killed so far, in the entire world? 169. Most of those deaths have been in Indonesia, one of the most densely populated, impoverished parts of the world. In their entry in the CIA World Fact Book, there is a long list of diseases to be wary of if you plan to travel there. Their entry for avian flu:

“highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified among birds in this country or surrounding region; it poses a negligible risk with extremely rare cases possible among US citizens who have close contact with birds (2007)”

Obvious (except to their own audience) fear-mongering outlets are the tabloid news. Take this, from Fox News: Iran, Iraq, Etc.: Email Your Pick of Top Terror Threat. “Are you tired of trying to make sense of what bogeyman, country or crazed group is trying to do us in from week to week?”

Even reputable organisations do the same thing – such as this report from the New Scientist: US ‘unaware’ of emerging bioterror threats. Part of the article speculates that “Terrorists could potentially develop bioregulators that disrupt the immune system, neurological system or endocrine system.”

Why do these stories crop up over and over? Most media depend on advertising or subscriptions for their revenue. The more viewers they claim, or the larger share of audience, the more money they earn. The more dramatic the headline, the more likely that someone is going to read it. Even someone such as myself will click on a link to a dramatic headline if only to see what kind of BS someone is trying to scare me with.

That isn’t to say that terrorist incidents don’t happen. It’s obvious that they do. My husband has a relative who was killed in a bomb attack in India. It’s terrible what happened – to a very nice person, a family man, minding his own business, on his way home from work one day. My husband’s family couldn’t care less about the odds of something like that happening, because it did happen. The same goes for victims of such attacks everywhere.

But what could the victims or the Indian government have done to prevent it? In reality, pretty much nothing. There are a lot of crazy nutjobs in the world who can come up with all sorts of dodgy rationalisations for violence. No amount of policing or social control can stop everyone who has an agenda and is determined to carry it out. Part of life is that tragedy can strike out of the blue, from anywhere at any time. But that’s no reason to live in constant fear or suspend civil liberties. It’s no reason to believe the crap spewed on Fox news or vote in power-hungry whackjobs who promise to protect you. It means to live life as fully as possible because you never know when your time is up. And in the meantime, look both ways when crossing the street.

For further reading: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1562978-1,00.html

http://www.junkscience.com

http://www.schneier.com/essay-155.html

Bad idea of the week – turning Fez Batik into a flophouse

Today there was an article in the Toronto Star about a plan to turn the space in the Richmond Street club district that used to house the Fez Batik club into a homeless shelter. I’m struggling with where to begin – I can’t believe such a stupid idea has gone so far.

The area general area – a few blocks around Richmond and John Streets – has been in decline the past few years, but is still the heart of the Toronto’s night life. I don’t tend to hang around there too often – the places tend to attract a younger, more suburban crowd – but it is the centre for a lot of out of towners and tourists.

Is plunking a homeless shelter in the middle of it really such a bright idea?

First off, a lot of people who need those kinds of services have substance abuse problems. The proposed shelter would be in the midst of dozens of bars – bars that are also notorious havens for drug dealers. Does anyone else see why that would be a not be a good plan – encouraging people with drug and alcohol problems in the one area of town where it’s easiest to get drugs and alcohol? All that’s missing is a late-night beer store or LCBO.

Secondly, homeless types and drunk suburbanites are a terrible mix. I know because I see the interaction between the two groups all the time where I live. I see the kids harrassing the homeless and the pan-handlers on Queen Street West regularly. People who are already down and out don’t need to be kicked down further, which is what drunken, sheltered, spoiled suburbanites love to do for entertainment as they head back to where dad’s beamer is parked.

Then there is the venue itself. I used to have a room-mate who worked at Fez Batik for a few years. The rent on that place then was something in the range of $30,000 per month. That was the rent alone – not the costs for staff, utilities or anything else. The plan for the shelter would provide for just forty beds. That means that just the rent alone would cost $750 per month per person. Isn’t that rather expensive? Surely there is cheaper real estate than that available.

There are already shelters in much better locations. One, I believe, recently closed – it was on Queen West and had few surrounding businesses. I don’t have a problem with shelters in general, but there are neighbourhoods in which it would be bad to put one for all kinds of reasons; where a few blocks away would be fine.  There’s one near where I live – at College and McCaul.  I pass by it regularly and see the people standing around outside with their coffees and cigarettes.  They mind their own business.  It’s close to public transport and roads, and a handful of houses, but I’ve never heard of any problems.  There’s certainly enough vacancies in Toronto that a similar location could be found.

Of course, the real solution would be for social services and the accompanying costs be covered by the provinces again rather than the cities. And to put the welfare rates back up to where people can at least afford rent and food. I’ll go deeper into my reasoning for that in a future blog.

For now, I’ll just be emailing my counciller before the meeting on Wednesday.