June 10, 2009

Egg All Over Our Faces: It’s Not Just Nick Griffin

Posted in Culture Wars, Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 am by Maggie Clark

When you realize what’s missing in mainstream coverage of the election of two British National Party (BNP) candidates to European Parliament, you shouldn’t be able to stand all at once. Really, the omission should stun you. And if you can’t laugh aloud at it, out of shame and awkwardness at the absurdity of the thing, you might never be the same again. I won’t tell you what it is right away, though: I’m curious to see if you reach the same conclusion — and how quickly you do. In the meantime, let me lay out the story at hand, as it’s been reported throughout the mainstream British and North American media.

After Nick Griffin and Andrew Born became the first members of the BNP, which has a “restrictive membership policy” refusing entry to blacks and asians, to attain such levels of legitimate power, there was much talk of public reaction, and justifications for their election in the first place. Within hours, Griffin had egg on his face — literally — as protestors shouted “Off our streets, Nazi scum” and held up banners condemning the party as fascist. Meanwhile, broadcasters resigned themselves to giving him airtime — a perk necessitated by his new position, but entered into cautiously because of cultural reluctance to give forum to concepts like racism and xenophobia.

And there are indeed both here. While Geert Wilders, of the Dutch Freedom Party — and another member of European Parliament — claims his issue is with “Islam as an ideology, not the colour of people’s skin”, Griffin managed to change his party into something more approachable without veering from “core values” like the following, shared on BBC Radio 5 Live after his election:

“All indigenous people all over the world have certain rights and one of those is to control their own borders so their bloodline and their culture remains dominant in their country without being hostile to anybody else. It is a basic human right.”

He is, of course, also a Holocaust denier (his adolescence in the National Socialist Movement, a group honouring Hitler and responsible for cases of arson on Jewish property, he typifies as “youthful indiscretion”), though he’s cleverly sought to downplay perceptions of anti-Semitism in his party — and why not, when clearly the menace of Islam is such that a few Jews kicking about are small peas in comparison?

So the “global warming is a hoax” shtick he also forwards — condemning an exploitative liberal base for using this issue to over-tax hard-working citizens (see? people who support immigration are just all around jerks to decent white British folk!) when the real issue is clearly peak oil (read: our need to stop being dependent on foreigners for anything) — is really just the cherry on top of one enormous shit sundae.

More interesting still is how the BNP was able to gain so much traction so quickly — a multifaceted development that leaves some thankful they only received two seats in total (Ed West of The Telegraph, writing about the need for a less polemic debate about immigration, reports that some were predicting five, or even eight, handed off). On the one hand, the BNP exploited the hell out of a recent expense claims scandal in British parliament, with Griffin deftly culling the working class vote from the Labour Party after lax rules allowed such expenses as the following to be billed to a nation already struggling with the impact of global recession:

NYT — For the Tories, the worst embarrassments lay in charges for the clearing of a moat, a shipment of horse manure for a garden, the maintenance of sprawling woodlands, the installation of a miniature “duck house” in a country house pond. The more mundane needs of Laborites and Liberal Democrats were met by claims for nonexistent mortgages, dry-rot repairs at the house of a Labor M.P.’s partner, and a Liberal Democrat’s trouser press. Before he resigned over the scandal, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, claimed thousands of pounds for a chauffeur-driven car that drove him about his Glasgow constituency, one of Britain’s poorest.

Consequent displays of “breathtaking arrogance” didn’t help, either:

Anthony Steen, a 69-year-old Conservative, told a BBC reporter that $135,000 in claims for the upkeep of his country home were nobody’s business. “Do you know what it’s about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It’s a merchant’s house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive. It just does me nicely.”

So if it weren’t for the fact that the party turned to in this time of great public anger, resentment, and disillusionment, is itself one of anger, resentment, and disillusionment (to say nothing of being racially motivated in its manifestations of all three), you might even say the House of Commons had it coming.

But then again, the victories weren’t garnered solely on account of the expense claims scandal; Griffin himself said there was “an enormous correlation between high BNP votes and nearby Islamic populations.” Which leads to the other part of their winning strategy: Making the threat of immigration quantifiable, by highlighting how it directly targets the children of good, decent, white British folk.

Enter the high profile subject of Muslim “grooming” of white girls for sex, and the presentation of a calmer, more reasonable-seeming Griffin on the BNP website, where he introduces a series of three “deeply shocking” videos with such moderate caveats as “We’re not putting these up because we want to alarm people or be sensationalist, but because we want to draw attention to a really serious and growing problem in our multicultural society.”

They are upsetting, too, so consider yourself forewarned if you watch them (Part I, Part II, Part III). And they speak to a nation-wide crisis Britain has at present with exceedingly low conviction rates for rape in the country, alongside a systemic problem with cases being dismissed “by officers with a ‘Life on Mars’ attitude based on making snap judgments about the credibility of the victim,” according to The Guardian.

And it’s precious, too, that in follow-up to his comment about the demographics of his voters, even Griffin explains how “the reason for [this correlation between voters and geography] is nothing to do with Islamophobia; it is issues such as the grooming of young English girls for sex by a criminal minority of the Muslim population.” A criminal minority, did you see that? And yet the BNP’s advertising campaign would prey on the country’s horrific overarching track record for sexual assault to demonize the entire British Muslim population. Clever, isn’t it?

But what’s cleverer still — if you haven’t noticed it yet — is that for all the nuanced analysis of causality, and consequence; for all the articles about whether or not Griffin will attend the Queen’s garden parties now, or how the media will handle having BNP members on their shows, or even what kind of public outcry the election of Griffin and Bron has yielded, you will find nothing — NOTHING — in mainstream media articles detailing any measure of comment, expert or personal, from the groups most affected by these elections: the British Asians, and the British Blacks, themselves.

And though we can preach until the cows come home about how offensive Griffin’s election is, and how offensive such xenophobic and racist beliefs are, until we realize that our very discourse on the subject implicitly talks around, instead of including, the very people the media claims are equal and full citizens of the British commonwealth, we are all just as guilty of perpetuating the dangerous myth of “otherness” that presently threatens the very fabric of European unity.

Advertisements

June 8, 2009

100,000,000 Missing Women

Posted in Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , at 11:09 am by Maggie Clark

Two years back I happened upon the Global Media Monitoring Project, a survey conducted every five years to determine who makes the news, and who makes it into the news, on the basis of gender. The 2005 iteration of this survey received data from 76 different countries, monitoring 12,893 news stories (radio, TV, and print), including 25,671 sources, and presented by 14,273 news personnel; and the results were profound:

  • Women are dramatically under-represented in the news

  • Only 21 percent of news subjects — the people who are interviewed, or whom the news is about — are female. Though there has been an increase since 1995, when 17 percent of those heard and seen in the news were women, the situation in 2005 remains abysmal. For every woman who appears in the news, there are five men.

  • Women’s points of view are rarely heard in the topics that dominate the news agenda.

  • There is not a single major news topic in which women outnumber men as newsmakers. In stories on politics and government only 14 percent of news subjects are women; and in economic and business news only 20 percent. Yet these are the topics that dominate the news agenda in all countries. Even in stories that affect women profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice (64 percent of news subjects) that prevails. [emphasis mine]

  • As newsmakers, women are under-represented in professional categories

  • such as law (18 percent), business (12 percent) and politics (12 percent). In reality, women’s share of these occupations is higher. For instance, in Rwanda — which has the highest proportion of female politicians in the world (49 percent) — only 13 percent of politicians in the news are women.

  • As authorities and experts women barely feature in news stories.
  • Expert opinion in the news is overwhelmingly male. Men are 83 percent of experts, and 86 percent of spokespersons. By contrast, women appear in a personal capacity — as eye witnesses (30 percent), giving personal views (31 percent), or as representatives of popular opinion (34 percent).

  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims:

  • 19 percent of female news subjects, compared with 8 percent of males, are portrayed this way. News disproportionately focuses on female victims in events that actually affect both sexes — accidents, crime, war. Topics that specifically involve women — sexual violence, domestic violence, cultural practice — are given little coverage.

    And the list goes on.

    Now, I have read much in the past two years that confirms women’s issues are not solely the domain of women writers — that men can, in fact, write stories about matters that profoundly affect womankind. Jeffrey Gettleman’s “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War” was a devastating and desperately needed piece about the under-reported incidence of rape as a weapon of war. Alex Renton’s “The Rape Epidemic” provided an outsider’s account of systemic abuses in Haiti. And for all The Globe and Mail‘s sensationalizing of the case, articles like Robert Matas’ “Week 24: Pickton demonstrated how he strangled prostitutes, witness says” made sure we knew full well who Robert Pickton was, and just how many lives he destroyed.

    Moreover, for all the benefits of having a woman talk to other women about sensitive cultural and personal matters, there are the practicalities of a war-torn world to consider, too: Some are simply not safe for foreign women (let alone local women) — and though all journalists can be expected to run grave risks when visiting difficult countries (as Euna Lee and Laura Ling, sentenced to 12 years hard labour in North Korea, recently discovered), those risks are markedly higher for women — both in terms of being targeted in the first place, and in the context of just what can be done to a woman, once targeted. We stand out. We’re generally smaller, with less comparative strength. We can become the personal property of our captors, married off or forced into lives of prostitution. And we can be raped into pregnancy, or else gang-raped for months until we perish. These aren’t just sickening possibilities: they’re maddening ones. And if the gentlemen’s club of inside intel wasn’t enough to make reporting on many parts of the world hard enough, these facts make it damn near impossible to have women representing women with any degree of equality in matters of extremely gendered global conflict.

    But as I read yesterday’s cover story for The Toronto Star, “How did 100,000,000 women disappear?” I found myself too numb for anger, too numb for tears. 100 million women — not all lost at birth, no, though so many cultures kill off female children as often as they can; and not all lost from “accidents” inflicted by families forcing the newlyweds’ to pay their dowry debts; and not all lost from violence most heinous and inhuman; but so many lost over the course of a lifetime from basic, gendered neglect, and the prioritization of access to aid to the males instead.

    Such sweeping and senseless losses, in such sweeping and senseless numbers, makes the true message of the GMMP all too clear: If our primary coverage of women is as victims, then all we will find are more victims. Many, many, many more victims.

    And while there are justifications, yes, for why women do not do more to report on the suffering of fellow women worldwide, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for why we do not do more to report on the empowerment of women worldwide. It needn’t be so blatant as this; one needn’t write that a woman’s career was a win for all women — but talk, at least, of that career: follow it. Report on it. Introduce more female experts. Cover subjects that preoccupy women throughout the world. It’s not rocket science, but it requires dedication, and patience.

    It’s so simple, in fact, it’s almost painful to state it: Women are victims because of how little they are valued, and how easy it is to devalue them.

    Change this perception, and you change the world — too late, perhaps, for the 100 million dead and gone in the world today.

    But in time, perhaps, for the next 100 million. Or more.

    June 1, 2009

    In the Mind of a Killer

    Posted in Global discourse, Medical matters tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 pm by Maggie Clark

    What must it be like to live in a world where cold-blooded killers are allowed to walk the streets — where their right to kill is even entrenched in state law, and half the population supports that same purported right to take life after innocent life?

    Ever since word of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination — shot in his church for performing abortions late in pregnancy — by one Scott Roeder, I’ve been asking myself this question, trying to grasp what life must be like for those who believe that a genocide is occurring throughout the world, targeting perhaps the most helpless portion of the population to date. All unborn children are crying out to be let live, the argument goes, and yet either misguided or malicious women are permitted to murder these innocents out of selfishness — aided in no small part by cold-blooded killers like Dr. George Tiller and the soulless liberal leadership that permits his kind.

    What a black-and-white outlook this is on the many complexities of abortion — both its existence, and the often surprising reality of what life without state-sanctioned abortion would look like. And yet, what would you do, if you were told to think calmly and rationally about the grey areas involved in the mass murder of Jews, alongside the Roma and homosexuals, during the Holocaust of World War II? What about the slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans in 1994, or of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in 1995, or of the Sudanese today in Darfur? Would you humour even for a heartbeat the notion that you have no right to stop a crime against humanity, if you could; that you just have to hope Nazi, or Hutu, or Bosnian Serb, or Janjaweed forces make the right decision and cease their slaughter of innocents?

    If this is what so many pro-lifers, like the one who took Dr. Tiller’s life, believe, I can’t help but feel an immense sadness for them: what a world without representation they must feel they live in. How on earth can you discuss what makes abortion different from these “post-birth” massacres with a group of people who perceive the death of an unborn child as being equivalent to the execution of a concentration camp inmate? And furthermore, how do you use such argumentation to make extreme reactions, like the taking of one life in the hope of saving thousands of unborn ones, a thing of the past?

    The really tragic part, though, comes from the reality that no one of sound mind takes delight in the process of ending life — because whatever term we use, what grows in a woman’s stomach after conception is life; and human life at that. Our differences arise solely from debating its personhood, and subsequent right to life therein. So really, there are two classes of anti-abortionism at work here: those against the legality of it, and those who wish we lived in a world where no abortions were necessary, ever. And f you took a poll, I think you’d find pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike wishing that the latter option were a reality.

    This is not, however, that world. Granted, it’s filled with a lot of interesting twists and turns — like our collective discomfort with the fact that preemie babies are surviving and thriving at earlier and earlier stages in the pregnancy; or that studies note “forebrain” activity is possible to limited degrees in the last six weeks of gestation. These are twists that often make even members of the pro-choice camp nervous about the legality of late-term abortions, and where a line should be drawn on the rights of a gestating human. This discomfort even goes so far as to create its own arbitrary lines in the sand about when abortion should be legal — 12 weeks and under, 24 weeks and under; or simply, in the case of Dr. Tiller’s late term practice, abiding by the Kansas law that permits late-term abortions of “fetuses that would be viable outside the mother’s womb, but only if two independent doctors agree that not to do so would put the mother at risk of irreparable harm by giving birth” (from The Guardian).

    But ultimately these lines in the sand, and how we draw them, are just that: twists, and turns. Underscoring the entire, ceaselessly nuanced debate about how to create fair and effective abortion law exists, however, two cold, hard facts:

    1) We all want far fewer abortions; and

    2) The legality or illegality of abortion does not change the actual abortion rate — only the number of unsafe abortions, and thus the number of women who die right along with those unborn children.

    If we really were to get into debate here, I’d also bring up the fact that Plan B (an abortifacient most effective if taken up to 72 hours after intercourse), first introduced in the U.S. in 1999, has had a sizable concrete impact on clinical abortion numbers, and so indicates the power of early education, access to options, and personal choice to mitigate those uncomfortable late term abortion rates — but of course, this too deviates in part from those aforementioned facts.

    Those two facts, taken in conjunction with one another, create an insightful context for that perception of fetal genocide among those who want abortion banned: In their reaction to the fact of abortion’s existence, they regard a criminal ban on such procedures as a means by which to eliminate abortion’s underlying existence. If something is bad, in other words, making it illegal must surely be the only ethical response. Some, like Dr. Tiller’s murderer, then go one further — clearly believing that a life must sometimes be taken to spare “innocent” ones: that social ethics invariably demands that all who take innocent life must be stopped at any cost. And they are condemned for this, yes — even among fellow pro-lifers.

    Nevertheless, it’s not much of a stretch to say that all who seek to make abortion illegal believe that by eliminating access to legal abortion, the sad fact of abortion’s existence can somehow be reduced. And they believe this to such a vehemently moral extent that the concrete details of implementation often fall to the wayside — how else, after all, does one account for videos like this one, which asks protesters seeking to ban abortion what the subsequent punishment should be for women who then break the law, and receives no clear response?

    This, then, is where the real discourse between warring camps needs to be made. Shouting about women’s rights (despite their importance; despite their relevance) only triggers counterarguments about possible rights for the unborn child, and from there a back-and-forth tirade about disputed figures and semantics invariably emerges. But accepting, embracing, and welcoming the grief that accompanies abortion’s existence? Saying to an anti-abortionist, “Yes, I also think it’s awful that we have abortion in the world; and that’s why I’m in favour of its legalization — as part of the development of a society that empowers women with choice and information long before their personal situation ever gets to that stage”?

    I am by few means an idealistic person, but I do believe that if we on the side of the debate who do not perceive an institutionalized genocide all around us could just pause for a moment, to understand what it must feel like for those who every day do — and then respect those emotions enough to relate, in turn, our own, shared love for life and sadness at the imperfections in the world around us — we might actually realize a measure of harmony (never peace) in this debate which has for so long, and in so many ways, polarized even the best of us.

    That’s the hope, at least, I choose to bear.

    May 30, 2009

    Twitter: Cons and… pros?

    Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

    It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

    From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

    Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

    But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

    Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

    Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

    So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

    Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg, de.licio.us, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

    Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

    But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

    And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

    Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

    And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

    Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

    Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

    At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

    As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

    So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

    Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.

    May 20, 2009

    Participatory Government Online: Not a Pipe Dream

    Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:13 am by Maggie Clark

    In an undergad political science course a few years back, I recall being challenged to present explanations for public apathy in Canadian politics. Out of a class of some thirty students, I was the only one to argue that there wasn’t apathy — that low voter turnout among youth was readily offset, for instance, by far higher youth turnout in rallies, discussion forums, and the like. Youth were absolutely talking politics: they just weren’t applying this talk in the strictest of official senses.

    My professor always did love such counterarguments, but my classmates never seemed to buy them. Rather, many argued that the “fact” of disengagement was not only accurate, but also healthier, because it meant that only those who “actually cared” about policy would set it. (We were working, at the time, with figures like only 2 percent of the Canadian population being card-carrying party members.) Many of these same students likewise believed that economics was not only the ultimate driving force in our culture, but also the only driving force that could lead; and also that true democracy was unwise because only a select few (I could only assume they counted themselves among this number) were able to govern wisely.

    At the time, Facebook was two years old. YouTube was one. And the online landscape, though unfurling at a mile a minute, was still light years from its present levels of group interaction. My sources for the presentation in 2006 were therefore an uncertain medley of old and new media: news articles and statistics; online party forums and Green Party doctrine.

    I didn’t have at my disposal, for instance, incredible videos like Us Now, a documentary encapsulating the many ways in which average citizens — seeing truly accessible means of interacting on a collective level with their environment — are achieving great success breaking down the representative government model to something much more one-on-one.

    Nor did I have The Point, which provides anyone with an account and an idea the means to start a campaign, co-ordinate fundraising, organize group activities, and otherwise influence public change. (Really, check it out — it’s fantastic.)

    And most regrettably of all, I didn’t have the Globe and Mail‘s Policy Wiki.
    This last, I just discovered yesterday on BoingBoing.net, when they noticed the Globe and Mail’s newest project on the website: The creation of a collectively developed copyright law proposal, to be sent to Ottawa for their consideration on July 1, 2009.

    As a huge policy geek, and a member of the new media generation to boot, I saw this as a goldmine of opportunity — and yet there is plenty else on the website for other policy development, too: discussion forums and wiki projects alike. So of course, in my excitement, I sent the link to a few members of the old generation — only to receive a curious collection of responses, dismissing the above as an exercise in anarchy, while simultaneously criticizing old-school committees as never accomplishing anything properly.

    Well, old guard, which is it? Is our present model of representative government failing us in certain regards, and should we thus try to engage different policy-building models? Or is the same model which, despite early challenges to legitimacy, created an online encyclopedia as powerful as the Encyclopedia Britannica, by its very nature as an open-source community project unfit for political consideration?

    Us Now makes the point that the internet’s promise of a more dynamic and accessible global community has had many false starts (spam, scams, and the proliferation of child pornography rings come personally to mind). But long before we became cynical of the internet’s capacity to improve our social impact, we as a society were already well used to doubting the potential of our fellow citizens to act intelligently and in the pursuit of the communal good. You can thank Machiavelli’s The Prince, Italo Calvino’s Crowds and Power, and bastardized readings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in part for this.

    A little while ago, however, I got around to reading John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, a CBC Massey Lecture Series essay collection about the rise of the management class and the utter reversion of the democracy/free market equation to the extent that the notion of democracy itself has suffered massive political distortion. Written just before the first real explosion of online communal projects — be they open source software, open-access socio-political groups, or information-dissemination tools — what Saul wasn’t able to account for in his work was the balancing force of technology itself. Rather, when he wrote these essays, technology was still very much a cornerstone of continued economic distortions in lieu of real democracy. Now, though, it’s clear that technology created through the corporate model has itself emerged as a platform for participatory government — and thus also as the undoing of those same, hierarchical economic forces. Coming full circle is fun!

    So, to get back to this matter of “trusting in the intelligence of individuals, and their capacity to act in the common good,” yes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary on the internet. Heaven knows, for instance, that the low-brow interactions which inspired CollegeHumor.com’s We Didn’t Start The Flame War are in fact a daily, persistent reality online, and make up a substantial percentage of commentary therein.

    Yet any parent will tell you that the way to raise a responsible child is to give her responsibilities to live up to; a child entrusted with none will invariably continue to act like one. So rather than using, as a test of our group potential online, those sites that in no way engender a sense of responsibility for our actions, why not look at those sites that do — like ThePoint.com, and the Globe and Mail Policy Wiki?

    Furthermore, if our current model of representative government no longer yields the level of public engagement we crave (read: in the ways the government wants to see), maybe it’s because citizens at large haven’t been given the opportunity to feel like real participants at all levels of the democratic process. And maybe, just maybe, the internet not only can change that perception, but already is.

    After all, those same students who, in the comfort of a political science classroom just three years back, so boldly proclaimed that collective decision making was a waste of time? You’ll find every last one on Facebook and LinkedIn today.

    May 6, 2009

    Calm before the swine

    Posted in Global discourse tagged , , , , at 9:59 am by Maggie Clark

    There is reason to think positively about the strength of citizens en masse. There is reason, too, to think positively about the benefits of our new networking technologies. And one need look no farther for proof of this than the confrontation between panic and perspective in relation to the swine flu epidemic.

    Swine flu had, and still has, all the earmarks for a perfect shock story: The strain, H1N1, afflicts the healthy, the strong, by over-stimulating the immune system’s response. It’s an inter-species mutant, so you can imagine the inference that it must surely be three times as strong as its avian, human, and swine strain predecessors. And the outbreak has been tied to Mexico — just one more illegal immigrant to worry about, right? (It’s even being called the “killer Mexican flu” in some circles.)

    As I write this, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, there are 165 reported cases of this H1NI strain in humans in Canada. The U.S. claims 403 cases, and between the two of us we have exactly two confirmed deaths. According to WHO statistics (current to May 5) Mexico has 822 cases, with 29 deaths; in the whole world, 21 countries share a collective case count of 1,490, with no other confirmed deaths.

    If scientists declare that the strain has established itself outside of North America, the flu will reach pandemic status. In theory, that sounds terrifying, but really, the meaning extends no further than the fact that the illness can be found across the globe. The term pandemic says nothing, for instance, about how lethal or non-lethal said condition is; and though some sources are fond of speculating worst case scenarios, this means that the death rate is still very low. How low? Let’s take the U.S. numbers to illustrate: Annually, there are some 200,000 cases of hospitalization due to typical flu types in the U.S. — and 36,000 deaths. By this measure, swine flu has a long way to go before being anywhere near as serious a threat as its local, home-grown competitors.

    And yet all this, for me, isn’t where it gets interesting. Not even close. Rather, what continues to surprise and impress me is our capacity for self-regulated response to the initial panic invoked around this illness. Yes, the media was talking up a storm about Influenza A H1N1. Yes, doomsday speculation was abounding. And yes, many industries — sanitation and pharmaceutical groups especially — have profited greatly in terms of market shares and business from all this panic.

    But also abounding was — and still is — a countering force of calm. And it takes some truly extraordinary forms: For instance, mainstream news articles taking other articles to task for the lack of coverage about all the good news we have about Influenza A H1N1, and ethical deliberations about whether or not laughing at this illness (its name, its origins) is acceptable. And then there’s the really fun stuff: Stephan Zielinski applying the amino acid sequence for Influenza A H1N1 to ambient music. Gizmodo posting a hauntingly beautiful video demonstration of how the virus gets released. xkcd.com aptly encompassing the typical range of responses to Swine Flu on Twitter.

    In other words, for all the panic we’ve had thrown at us about this illness, many have responded with a measure of fearlessness at least a hundred times as infectious. Does this mean everyone is rid of that panic? No, of course not: these reactive trends are often regional and compartmentalized due to varying interests and complex investments. The mass killing of all pig herds in Egypt, for instance — a perfectly rational response to a disease that, at that time, had no cases of pig-to-human infection manifested in the world, and absolutely no cases of human infection in the country itself — leaves huge consequences for the pig farmers, who with 300,000 animals killed have lashed back at the government in the form of protests: doubtless this panic attack on the part of officials will leave a long list of social consequences in its wake.

    But think back, for comparison’s sake, to our global reaction to SARS — the extreme panic, the devaluation of tourism in heavily affected cities and regions, the dramatic quarantining procedures. Globally, the disease racked up 8273 cases, with 775 direct deaths (a death rate of 9.6 percent, weighted heavily toward seniors). Though clearly a more serious disease than Influenza A H1N1, the overall death rate of Americans due to seasonal influenza was still much higher; and yet our panic was long-standing and far-reaching, in large part because we were given no room for questions of doubt: only more panic.

    Similarly, I’m not convinced the relative calm in this case emerged from the ground up: rather, I suspect news articles first had to present seeds of doubt about this issue, as forwarded by scientists reacting to the extent of media spin. I think room for doubt had to emerge from these sources first; and then the average reader, artist, and blogger could follow after — in turn serving to create more room to maneouver, rhetoric-wise, in future works by the mainstream media. But regardless of speculation about just how, and in what order, these groups fed off each other — the scientists, the media, and the participatory citizenry as a whole — what’s more striking is that they fed off each other at all to produce this ultimately calming effect.

    We have, in the last 8 years, kicked ourselves over and over again for allowing flimsy excuses for war-mongering to stand; for allowing freedoms to be stripped from us in the name of security; for permitting, in general, the hard polemics of with-us-or-against-us to divide the population. And rightly so: When we go along with fear-mongering, we can be, en masse, pathetic excuses for an advanced and critically thinking civilization.

    But cases like our reaction to swine flu should likewise give us cause for hope — and should be treated as such, with praise for measured response wherever it emerges. For as much as we can act like sheep if treated like sheep, it nonetheless takes precious little in the way of tempered social rhetoric for us to realize our own, independent engagements — fearless, inquisitive, and inspired alike — with the world instead.

    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?