April 25, 2009

New York City: A Fully Realized Social Discourse

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:30 am by Maggie Clark

Barthes’ Mythologies came quickly to mind as I rode into New York City for the first time this past week, recessed in the back of a cab. The seats were low, with loops of sturdy material bolted to the sides for people who needed help getting up from them. A thick plate of protective plastic separated the front from the back, with a credit and debit machine mounted on our side, along with a slot for hard cash. Before me a touch screen jumped to the local news, coupled with messages from the mayor about cab service developments.

That’s when it hit me: I was looking at a fully realized social discourse — the kind I would see played out again and again over the course of my short visit to the Big Apple. Very clearly, in everything from the make-up of the car to the make-up of the whole cab fleet, you could see where different needs and wants were engaged and applied to real-world solutions: The plastic both for the protection of the cabbie and the privacy of the passenger; the low seats to further complicate robbery attempts and allow maximum room for the passengers; the touch-screen to help with long traffic times and, at least incidentally, to give passengers a sense of direct connection with the city they’re driving through. And you could see, too, the compromises in this arrangement: the loss of possible friendly interaction between driver and passenger, the loss of spatial control on the part of the passenger in lieu of driver empowerment. It was, in short, a semiotic wet dream. And it wasn’t alone.

In fact, everything in Manhattan (and what parts of Brooklyn I encountered) bore with it the social history of its development. Far beyond the striking presence of Greek and Gothic Revivalism, to say nothing of other Neoclassical structures in the basic architecture of the towering down- and uptown cores, there were still other, humbler entrenchments of social discourse plainly visible for anyone on the street. These included the newsstands — permanent entrenchments on every other corner which highlight the centrality of print media and convenience items to pedestrian life — and the billboards, the digital displays, the street vendors — all of which made every space on the street a possible zone of interaction between individuals, other individuals, and commercial products. The digital displays especially had a striking engagement with their surroundings: in the subways and Grand Central Station they made use of existing dimensions or constraints on building — whether it be an ad fitted to the space allowed by a wide beam, or a digital image projected on a towering marble column — and in so doing minimally affected their surroundings. But much could also be said about the subways themselves, which, though complex, have developed in such a way as to attend to both the needs of local commuters and those who need to move quickly over a sprawling city landscape.

And then there are the people. So much is made of the stereotype of angry or arrogant New Yorkers that I was truly humbled to discover how staggeringly polite and open to engagement so many others are. I know I was only in the city for four days, so my impression is anecdotal at best, but when an old lady railing on about the crowd’s need to find Jesus stops long enough to help direct me to the entrance of a bank, I can’t help but take pause. People responded with patience and a friendly demeanour when I needed help finding my way; I got the occasional apology from people who had to cut into my path; and I started conversation with immaculately dressed strangers who responded with openness in turn. And everywhere there was talking, talking, talking — the city never loses that animation, that constant interplay.

Yes, I also encountered the occasional arrogant, impatience, or just plain rude personality; I am in no way denying that they exist. But what I also discovered, in the way of courtesy, paints a much more intricate picture of New York life — and also, I suspect, highlights an underlying factor that allows both politeness and abrasive natures to such an extreme in the same community: in a city that is itself so replete in fully realized social dialogues, individual self-realization is itself given tremendous life.

I’d like to say that my home town, Toronto, has similarly realized dialogues — and I’m sure there are a few. But the great pleasure that comes from travelling to a place that is so alike in many ways is that the ways in which the two differ become patently clear. And in the U.S. for the first time in my life — in New York, of all places, for my first visit to the U.S. — what I came away with most of all was a sense of a standard being set. Is New York perfect? Not at all. Are these social dialogues, so concretely established in city life, finished? Not even close. (As I especially discovered when matching up the mayor’s transit and cab ads for a New York public school survey to this article in the New York Times, about the mayor’s conflicting responses to the opinions of others.) But the arena for these dialogues is so concretely defined that I can’t help but think Toronto’s own engagement with its own issues — everything from homelessness to education to worker safety to commercialism to identity to multicultural interaction — a shadow of this southern self-realization.

What am I asking for here — is it news stands on our downtown street corners? touch screens in our cabs? mayoral addresses in the form of ads across the city? Maybe. I honestly feel one can do little better than New York has in terms of the entrenchment of news media (and with it, more direct and constant civic engagement).

But beyond that, in a broader sense, I suppose I’m calling on a sense of self-confidence, made manifest in all our decision-making as a community. It is this self-confidence that I think creates the New York stereotypes — the loud-mouths, the arrogantly opinionated — but these are necessary extremes of a system that allows, as well, much in the way of a quieter, more nuanced self-assurance. And, however anecdotal my experience may be, it is indeed my experience: These more nuanced displays of self-assurance exist.

It is, in essence, a matter of effective argumentation: Arguments do not need to be made loudly, or arrogantly, to achieve their full effect, but they do require confidence; though many are made in the former way (especially among pundits!), there was just as much self-assurance in Socrates’ form of address — for though his route was a constant line of questioning, it was still his route, and by holding fast to that collection of beliefs and approaches that were his own, he enacted precisely the same self-realization.

What would our writing look like, our cities look like, our social dialogues look like, if as individuals and as communities we were brave enough to make decisions and hold fast to them — and equally brave enough, too, to make other decisions, and hold fast to them, if the first decisions proved ineffective?

I ask this especially because we as Canadians often pride ourselves on our humility, our politeness, and with it, our tact and discretion. That these values are only true to life at the best of times for us, and most other populations, is a moot point: The stereotype of the “nice” Canadian is what it is. And yet, it’s also not — for on matters of U.S. interest Canadians have absolutely no qualms about speaking our minds, and investing with a sense of higher-than-thou authority our “outsider’s” perspective on events therein. I was guilty of this. I am guilty of this. But after visiting New York, I hope not to be as guilty of this in the future.

For after visiting New York, and seeing firsthand what a fully realized social discourse can look like, I feel more motivated than ever to realize the same strength of community conversation here at home — and not just about the U.S., heaven’s no: About us. About Canada. About all the ways in which the whole wide world intersects with us and our own.

I have no idea what such a fully realized discourse will look like. I only know — I only feel — that we’re not there yet.

And I want to be a part of it.

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April 18, 2009

The Heart of the Matter: A Shifting Social Discourse

Posted in Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 2:57 pm by Maggie Clark

A very important transition is occurring in North America, and I suspect it will still be another year or so until we grasp its full implications. Just a few weeks back, Chinese financial leaders suggested changing the world’s standard currency from the dollar to a global currency reserve, and UN economists have since backed this proposition. This move would mark a shift away from the U.S. as the source of global financial stability, and towards a preexisting global discourse that will at last be given its own voice, even if North American still plays a large role in the debate.

I suspect the same is very much true for socio-religious discourse: While George W. Bush was in office, the rise of right-wing Christianity in conjunction with the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched a polemic debate between Christians and Muslims — a West meets Islam, “U.S.” vs. them affair. Moreover, the rise of a particular brand of Christianity — politically-motivated Evangelical Christians — created in its own right a series of related conflicts on the home front, such that Evangelical resistance to the theory of evolution in classrooms, global warming in government policy-making, expansive rights for women and the LGBT/IQQ community, and various issues pertaining to “morally acceptable” content on national airwaves garnered excesses of media attention and political sway.

Now, though the politically-motivated Evangelical Christian community still amounts to a sizable social force, the media portrays a very different, more long-standing socio-religious battle: the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

In this ideological warfare, North America undoubtedly still plays a crucial role, but in the last few years this role has shifted from one of proactive engagement to one of passive response. The U.S. has always been deemed pro-Israel, regarding the country as a beacon of hope for stability and the eventual spread of democracy in the Middle East. However, the U.S. simultaneously relies upon strong business relations with nations in the Arab world, and to this end has equally supplied many such countries with arms, money, and the maintenance of dictatorships that suited U.S. interests. This has always made its involvement in the region self-motivated.

Post 9/11, that involvement necessitated a stronger alliance with those who would fight against U.S. enemies in Afghanistan; later, it also meant stronger alliances with those who would support Americans in Iraq. But times have changed. Immigration from the Arab world into Europe created stresses from which controversial national leaders and extreme anti-foreigner stances have emerged. The two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, once a viable discourse with its very own “road map” to peace, is no longer a welcome solution for many in the region. And here in North America, every political decision is becoming increasingly mired in questions of perceived Islamophobic, Zionist, anti-Semitic, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, pro-terrorist, and anti-terrorist allegiances.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to argue these terms weren’t bandied about before — of course they were. But what has been lost in recent months, from a socio-religious context, is a sense of North American values having any measure of relevance in the debate. Even terrorism is not being engaged as something feared again on home soil; rather, those terms, like their aforementioned brethren, time and again reroute discussion to the matter of the Middle East.

An excellent example of this arose quite recently, in the matter of George Galloway. Galloway is a five-time British MP expelled from the Labour party for extremely controversial comments made in response to Britain’s invasion of Iraq. He has toured Britain and the U.S., working with many causes: some clearly humanitarian, many others complicated by statements that have brought UN condemnation upon him, and actions that have blurred the lines between humanitarian aid and front organizations for personal gain. (I won’t make a habit of this, but there are so many controversies pertaining to his views, actions, and travels that I’m going to recommend reading his Wikipedia entry — no one mainstream article on the man comes anywhere near as close.) On March 20, 2009, he was denied entry into Canada, on the basis of his ties to Hamas: though he has gone on record stating that he does not agree with Hamas, Galloway gave the government $45,000. As Hamas is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, this was enough to deny him entry, though Canadian immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi’s comment on the issue is a little more dramatic than that:

The Telegraph — Immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the act was designed to protect Canadians from people who fund, support or engage in terrorism.

Mr Velshi said: “We’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

“I’m sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won’t be one of them.”

Galloway contested the ban, lost, but got around the ruling by being broadcast via video-link from New York to Canadian locations. And so life went on, with the news turning to “Tea Parties” in the U.S. and Canadian outrage towards the Afghani rape law. Yes, we have plenty of political matters to attend to at home; there is no shortage of issues. But the question posed by the high profile case of Galloway — to say nothing of audience reactions to North American portrayals of recent Israeli-Palestinian disputes and Somali pirates– remains: Which is the greatest? Not in the world at large, per se, as so many cultural wars are played out on that stage every day — but here, at home, in North America? Does our ultimate socio-political investment lie with home turfs, and all the multicultural challenges upon them, or quite literally with foreign lands, and the conflicts waged there instead? If the latter, does this tie our future directly to their outcome? What are the implications (not necessarily negative!) of a national discourse set primarily by the happenstance on foreign soil?

April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by Maggie Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.