Archive for March, 2010

At last–no more tasering for old people!

March 31, 2010

I was heartened to read that the Ontario Police have concluded, after serious study, that tasering the elderly will no longer be “recommended.” Tasering pregnant women is also now frowned upon. 

I’m relieved that officers will just have to use good old-fashioned force to subdue my mother and her friends if they become public nuisances after their art classes. 

But seriously, wouldn’t common sense dictate that young, trained men and women, usually cruising in pairs, would be capable of taking down an old person or a pregnant woman. The problem is that common sense might  be too easily tossed aside with a sleek, smooth taser gun firmly in hand.

I’m sure there’s more to this; after all, what can I know as a citizen who doesn’t have to come face to face with society’s most dangerous? I really do get that part. 

Maybe it’s the word “recommend” in the headline that irritates so!


Lazy, hazy speech and the “r” word

March 31, 2010

The word “racist” is used so often these days that it’s lost much of  its meaning. Like the words “good” and “bad” that signify very little, “racist” is used to describe people who espouse all sorts of vile and ignorant views,  but too often to lazily refer to anyone who dares to engage in a conversation about race, its history, its scientific implausibility and its current manifestation in attitudes, slang and insult.

Christopher Hitchens describes an appearance on the Chris Matthews Show in which he was making a cultural comparison between the words “nigger” (quotation marks mine), Tory (as in Conservative Brit) and queer:  

I found this out myself recently, when I went on Hardball With Chris Matthews. It was just after John Kerry had (I thought unintentionally) given the impression that young people joining the armed forces were stupid. Chris asked me where liberals got the idea that conservatives were dumb. I said that it all went back to John Stuart Mill referring to the Tories as “the stupid party.” After a while, the Tories themselves began to use this expression to describe themselves. I added that the word Tory was originally an insult—it means something like brigand in Gaelic—and it had also been adopted, by those at whom it was directed, as a badge of pride. In this respect, I went on to say, it anticipated other such appropriations—impressionist, suffragette—by which the target group inverted the taunt thrown at it and, by a kind of verbal jujitsu, turned it back on its originators. In more recent times, I finished with what I thought was a flourish, the words nigger and queer (and I may have added faggot) had undergone some of the same transmutation.

Very suddenly, we went to a break, and the studio filled with unsmiling people who detached my microphone and announced that the segment was extremely over. My protests were futile. Should I have remembered to cover myself and say “the N-word” instead? It would have seemed somehow inauthentic. Did MSNBC think that anything I had uttered was inflected with the smallest tinge of bigotry? Presumably not. So, what we now have is a taboo, which is something quite different from an agreement on etiquette.

It’s understandable that the United States has much to process and atone for and it’s equally understandable that mainstream media would act with caution and not be perceived as soft on the “n” word. But I can’t  remember hearing someone interviewed use the “n” word in a derogatory way; in other words, it’s not that complicated. Only people who don’t read much and are curious about little would use this word in its hateful sense (the characterization of Obama among the so-called Tea-party crowd would qualify, in my book). 

As Hitchens points out, this leads not only to the banning of many books but also a culture’s paralysis when faced with the possibility of de-mystifying the word. Language just doesn’t work like that. It tends to take on a life of its own–bans or no bans. 

While preparing for a lesson on the film Lost in Translation in which Bill Murray’s character visits Japan to shoot a humiliating whisky commercial, after having been somewhat of a star in the US, I read a number of reviews, the majority of which were rave. Here’s part of Roger Ebert’s light-hearted and glowing review:

  Now from all I’ve said you wouldn’t guess the movie is also a comedy, but it is. Basically it’s a comedy of manners — Japan’s, and ours. Bob Harris goes everywhere surrounded by a cloud of white-gloved women who bow and thank him for — allowing himself to be thanked, I guess. Then there’s the director of the whiskey commercial, whose movements for some reason reminded me of Cab Calloway performing “Minnie the Moocher.” And the hooker sent up to Bob’s room, whose approach is melodramatic and archaic; she has obviously not studied the admirable Japanese achievements in porno. 

In other words, the film is full of characterizations–read, characters. And characters have to come from somewhere. Imagine suggesting that Jan Austen novels were anti-white because they featured upper class busy-bodies and hopeful young girls and dashing men–a comedy of manners! I’ve heard and read a number of literary and cultural critics claim that there is nothing “universal” (quotation marks theirs) in the world–no higher purpose, no common understanding and no possibility of connecting on anything meaningful. There’s just culture. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue that there’s only culture and then tell everyone they can’t talk about it except as historical injustice.  

According to the The Guardian‘s Kiku Day, the film is racist:

But it’s the way Japanese characters are represented that gives the game away. There is no scene where the Japanese are afforded a shred of dignity. The viewer is sledgehammered into laughing at these small, yellow people and their funny ways, desperately aping the western lifestyle without knowledge of its real meaning. It is telling that the longest vocal contribution any Japanese character makes is at a karaoke party, singing a few lines of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen.

The Japanese half of me is disturbed; the American half is too. The Japanese are one-dimensional and dehumanised in the movie, serving as an exotic background for Bob and Charlotte’s story, like dirty wallpaper in a cheap hotel. How funny is it to put the 6ft-plus Bill Murray in an elevator with a number of overly small Japanese? To manufacture a joke, the film has Murray contorting himself to have a shower because its head isn’t high enough for him – although he is supposed to be staying in a five-star hotel. It’s made up simply to give western audiences another stereotype to laugh at. And haven’t we had enough about the Japanese confusing rs and ls when they speak English?

I shared this critic’s review with my students, many of whom are of Asian descent or have visited various countries in Asia.  Their responses tended to be “I wonder if this reviewer actually watched the movie” or “I wonder if she’s ever been to Japan?” and my favourite, “isn’t it just about being lonely in a foreign culture?” One particularly experienced and insightful student commented that Asian popular culture shamelessly steals from the West and makes it their own. Sound a bit like art to me!

The psychological and emotional backdrop of the film is culture shock. I can’t imagine how that would have played without some form of characterization of the Japanese culture–stylish, energetic in a neon sort of way, ritualistic in its social and business encounters, unfazed by the idea of prostitution and crazy for crazy games shows.

 I am heartened that my students didn’t go for this dour cultural story of oppression and ridicule.  How many film would need to be banned to satisfy these cultural watchdogs? 

But the younger generation seems to take all this in stride. They’ve grown up multi-culturally and have been a part of  a mixed school system in which the cool kids are no longer necessarily white and the smart ones well, I’ll leave it at that–lest I be accused of racism. 

When we see real racism, we know it. At least the kids seem to know it.

Maybe the kids really are alright, after all.

“We Are the World,” Japanese style!

March 30, 2010

This Japanese remake (send-up?) of “We Are the World” just warms my heart, for some reason. 

I particularly like the reactions from the buttoned-down crowd. Priceless!

Watch this:

Ann Coulter: We’re just not that into you!

March 29, 2010

There was quite a lot of analysis this week on Ann Coulter’s U of Ottawa lecture being cancelled because of security concerns over student protests. Much of the analysis chastised or ridiculed the students for their lack of understanding the difference between hate speech and speech YOU hate.

And, of course, they’re right. A few brave souls did defend the students well; but then again, they didn’t seem to be attached to any conservative agenda or aggressively anti-PC position.

It’s not hard to imagine that progressive writers in the States would love all this! 

This one did; and did it well in “Sorry Ann Coulter, Canada’s just not that into you!” 

And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching Ann Coulter go rabid, watch this little chat with Matt Lauer.

Let me tell you, in my day,….

March 28, 2010

You know you’re old when you find yourself saying “that’s not the way we did it when I was a kid,” and actually believe you’ve made a good point.

When I first heard the term play date (and then heard it a hundred times), I was horrified. What has childhood become?–socialization by appointment organized by adults obsessed with their children’s activities? Where’s the spontaneity and creativity? 

Spoken like someone who doesn’t have children in the 21st century, right?

Apparently so.

Here’s an interesting NYT’s  take on just how much the world has changed and how these changes affect the way kids play.

The Angry Men of Rationalism

March 28, 2010

Fair warning: This is a bit of rant. But in the words of the used- to- be- funny, Dennis Miller, “this is just my opinion; I could be wrong.”

Many people don’t  like Christopher Hitchens. Some don’t like him because he changed his stance on the Iraq war to support Bush’s invasion. I didn’t like that either.

Some don’t like him because he thinks he’s so smart, with that upper crust British education of his and his often smug, elitist way of disarming his opponents with the tried (and some would say, tired) rules of effective argument. Underestimate the hostility towards this type of education, at your peril! He cites argument fallacies and such bothersome things. For this, I like him a lot.

Others don’t like Christopher Hitchens because he’s a boozer; he sometimes looks disheveled and hung over and is often cranky. I couldn’t care less about this. 

I’m guessing that most people who don’t like Christopher Hitchens believe he’s gone too far in condemning institutionalized religion as power-hungry, corrupt, delusional and sometimes evil.  When pressed on whether religion offers people comfort and spiritual joy, Hitchens will likely say that art and knowledge provide the same, if sought. And it’s for this that I like him the most.

It’s hard to read his book God is not Great and come away from it the same person. But most people will not read it. It is too angry; it is too divisive. Or maybe the information just hurts too much. 

I regularly defend the likes of Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens because they seem to have more guts than a hunger for glory. Egos aside, these two men call nonsense in the face of religion, and mostly religious zealotry. After 8 years of the Bush administration in which a cyncial, highly calculated decision was made early on by the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz to specifically target the least liberally educated population of right-wing  American Christians, critics like Hitchens, Maher and Richard Dawkins (and let’s not forget our beloved Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) have earned my full support.

This isn’t about a person’s right to practice religion and not be verbally attacked for doing so. It’s more about the damage done to society when criticism of it in terms of public policy is silenced in the name of tolerance.  In the US, it is likely that a black man will become president (ha!), a woman will become president, a Jew will become president before someone who doesn’t believe in a personal, sky god will be elected.

Religious individuals don’t scare me; I’ve dabbled myself and found some great stuff to draw from, not only in times of emotional need, but also in my daily life. What scares me is when the belief becomes policy, becomes war, becomes hatred and becomes so totally irrational that no meaningful discussion of what works best for most people can occur. I give you, thus, Sarah Palin, George Bush, Ahmadinejad, Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell, to name but a few. These people matter to me–not what they believe, but what power they manage to secure. Hitchens referring to Jerry Falwell’s corpse as a “carcass” was provocative, to say the least. But since Falwell would have likely believed that Hitchens was going to hell for all eternity, maybe Hitchens merely needed to make an equally horrific point.

 Here are two of my favourite angry rationalists on the Catholic Church’s pederasty crisis.

Why we should thank Indo comedians

March 27, 2010

I”m a huge believer in edgy comedy–especially lately when the smart comedians are actually informing the public of what should be obviously ridiculous. A good stand-up comedy act is like an essay, but one that is sometimes too difficult or painful for everyone to understand. 

When I talk to my students about comedy as truth, they all seem to have something to say. It’s not Shakespearean analysis but I”ve come to believe that comedy as social criticism is just as valuable today as academic culture criticism. Most people don’t want to talk that way anymore. 

There’s been an explosion of Indo comics that put on their own accents, laugh about penis size and hair, and are able to cut through so many years of political correctness. The PC mindset holds one very valuable perspective on how society is best organized.

  But when it stifles honest debate and meddles with the sanctity of the courageous comedian, it doesn’t feel real. And I’m guessing many, if not most,  young white kids and brown kids all know this from having grown up together. 

Why are the Indo comics like Russell Peters so funny? He jokes that everyone in the room finds his Indian accent schtick to be hilarious, except for the  white people in the audience. We were taught to find these generalizations and stereotypes offensive. So why are all the brown people laughing?

A number of these comedians were raised in Canada and the US but, at the same time, understand their own cultural heritage. They don’t have to be politically correct. They can say whatever they want; they have society’s pass to be really, really funny. What a breath of fresh air! I feel closer to my Indo-Canadian brethren already–because I laughed with them about some things that are obviously hysterical and that don’t suggest any meaningful bigotry.  

We’re all potential comedians.

Russell Peters on the Indian accent:

Blood and hockey

March 27, 2010

I’m a fairly new convert to Hockey and The Hockey Game Fight. I grew up amidst young hockey fans but also listening to my father express his disbelief at the sport’s stance on violence.

I even defended fighting in hockey in a Letter to the Editor of The  Vancouver Sun, arguing that it was the ghastly behaviour of the fans that bothered me more than these enormously well-paid athletes duking it out while fans cheer. 

I have since changed my mind, though, partly as a result of attending a Vancouver Giants game, where, within the first five minutes, a fight broke out between two teenaged players who happened to be centre ice at the time. The two women we were with were not hockey fans; they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. 

My friend, Rick, who recently had his own devastating hockey accident, told me that night that this is a case of young hockey players, whose brains aren’t even finished developing, willing to do anything to get into the NHL. Thousands and thousands of children were screaming, some even taking of their little logo-laden T-shirts and twirling them around in the air. Maybe I was feeling delicate that day; or maybe the ugliness of the fighting felt so much closer than when I watch it at home. 

Watch this Fifth Estate doc on how many players feel about the fighting that helps secure they careers.

Bill Maher to Democrats: Get drunk on your power!

March 27, 2010

When I read this guy, it feels like I’m reading my own mind.

My friend, Colleen, used to ask, “do you two call each other?”

Smart democratic supporters like him have been begging for some time that Obama kick ass rather than trying to make nice with the more cynical part of the Republican Party. 

And here, he’s backing it up with Dick Cheney and Karl Rove rhetorics and tactics.   

Priceless, Bill!

Close your eyes and try not to think of England!

March 26, 2010

The country of my birth has disappointed me of late.

It would seem that British schools are going the route of Texas schools and re-writing history to make it more comfortable. 

Comfort education seeks to ensure that no one is offended. The only problem is that no one learns anything new this way. No one learns history this way and we were all taught the danger of that in school, weren’t we? 

This is political correctness needing a straight-jacket and a syringe.   

I’m hoping there’s more to this. I’m hoping this is not true.

I want so much for this not to be true.