Saturday, May 24, 2014

Art is a threat to established orders

The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen.


_____


Re: Ottawa Jewish Federation condemns art exhibit at City Hall

Dear Editor,

Kudos to City Hall for standing behind the Invisible exhibit despite pressure from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa (JFO). While the official JFO complaint cites supposed "glorification" of Palestinian terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, I suspect the real source of discomfort is that the exhibit depicts the human cost of Israel's ongoing practice of settler colonialism in the occupied territories, and may leave viewers wondering about its unintended consequences, such as the radicalization of people like Mughrabi.

Art is dangerous because it allows the viewer to see past conventional wisdom to a larger truth, which is why it is a threat to established orders, and is something to be contained or even censored to those who feel they're being publicly unmasked by it. And for this reason, art is vital.

James Deagle,
Ottawa, ON

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The junk science of homophobia

The following is an email sent to the Family Research Institute, an organization whose "one overriding mission" is "to generate empirical research on issues that threaten the traditional family, particularly homosexuality, AIDS, sexual social policy, and drug abuse."

_____


Dear Dr. P. Cameron and Dr. K. Cameron,

I was reading your March 2014 blog post, Are Gay Parents More Apt to Commit Incest?, and couldn't help but notice that you make use of so-called 'survey' data from thirty ago that has since been called into question. In The Cameron Group's Survey Studies: A Methodological Critique, Dr. Gregory Herak listed what he believes are six fatal errors in the 1983-84 survey you continue to reference, namely:

  • Mischaracterized sample (r.e. not truly 'national' in scope, as claimed)
  • Unnacceptably low response rate
  • Unreliable analyses due to small sub-samples
  • Questionable validity
  • Biased interview procedures
  • Researcher's biases publicized during data collection

As Dr. Herak concludes,
...an empirical study manifesting even one of these six weaknesses would be considered seriously flawed. In combination, the multiple methodological problems evident in the Cameron group's surveys mean that their results cannot even be considered a valid description of the specific group of individuals who returned the survey questionnaire.
Because the data are essentially meaningless, it is not surprising that they have been virtually ignored by the scientific community.
In light of the above, as well as other similar critiques of your methods, it would appear that you are peddling advocacy research as scientific research. (The fact that you had already lobbied against anti-gay discrimination laws by the time the survey was carried out, and while it was in progress had publicly stated that it would "provide ammunition" for anti-gay advocates, is evidence enough that the survey was contaminated with your bias from the start.)

As I'm sure you're already aware, childhood sexual abuse is a very serious topic, and one deserving of solid research carried out in an objective manner for the sake of discovery, and for the cause of improving life for everyone involved. Therefore, I question the morality of your use of other people's childhood traumas as cheap political theater for the purpose of spreading anti-gay fervor, and providing "ammunition" for those who hate.

Such an affront to sex abuse survivors (and science itself) is not only indefensible - it's just plain sick.

Sincerely,

James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

PS: This message will be posted on my blog, as will any response received from your organization.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Western Shirts

1.


He’s looking better than he has in a long time – slimmed down, and with a clarity and focus in his eyes rendering him almost unrecognizable. Sure, there's lines in his face, the slight tremor of his hands, and those moments where the world starts closing in, but overall, not too bad for someone who should be dead.

Yet, he is still very much an addict. Nowadays his drug of choice is isolation, consumed in extended binges of night driving through the desert. Sometimes he stays on the Interstates, other times he wanders off on side roads through forgotten pissant towns. Tonight is one of the latter.

He doesn't mind me riding shotgun, as I tend to keep to myself and only speak when there's something worth saying. And because I haven't known him personally for that long, I'm not one to judge him against past performance. He wants to just be, and wants his traveling companion to feel the same way.

As we speed down a long stretch of neglected road, I steal occasional glances at him in the ambient dashboard glow: full unkempt beard, hair slicked back as a counterpoint, and sunglasses, which he wears while driving, even at night. The beard and the sunglasses are meant to be a wall for him to hide behind, as if they make him invisible. Of course, they just mildly alter his appearance, rather than completely obscuring it. I think he realizes this, too, as he sends me with wads of cash into greasy spoons along the way to fetch cheeseburgers and coffees to go.

Along with these overnight drives into nowhere, his other drug of choice these days is western shirts. Sometime last week we were in Nashville, and he filled his trunk with them. He even had me fitted for a few. (He may be eccentric and borderline deranged, but he's loaded. And when you're loaded, it doesn't matter where your mind is at. That place in Nashville let us in after hours. Money talks.)

The black shirt he’s wearing tonight is embroidered and bejeweled with country and western elegance, and is custom tailored for his frame. I glance over at the old Martin in the backseat, perched upright in the driver's side corner. It has no strings, which doesn't seem to bother him, especially when he’s strumming it.

2.


The sun is about to come up somewhere in New Mexico, and as usual we'll soon find some cheap motel where we can crash until early evening. For the past fifteen minutes he's been fiddling with the dial on the radio but is unable to pull in any one station at a time. And then, for some reason, he settles on pure static and pulls off to the shoulder, listening intently. I want to ask him why we're sitting in the middle of nowhere listening to white noise, but that is not why I'm here. My job is to provide the mere semblance of company, to be little more than a fly on the dashboard.

He is completely engrossed.

Finally, he takes off his sunglasses, revealing reddened eyes full of tears. "Beautiful, isn’t it?" I nod, of course, and strain my ears to detect something other than static.

3.


I look out the motel window at the desert mountains in the distance, painted in sunset shades of orange and red, gazing for as long as I can, taking in this holy spectacle until the mountains turn dark brownish-purple as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. It has become my ritual to observe this celestial shift change whenever possible.

"Ready to split, Hoss?" says a familiar voice from behind me. I turn around to see him sitting on the edge of one of the two double beds, decked out in one of his newer western shirts (white, with a green and red floral pattern in sequins and embroidery), strumming his stringless guitar.

"I 'spose so."

"Alright," he says, unusually upbeat. "Y'know, I think tonight might be it. I can feel it."

My heart leaps into my throat. "Oh?"

"Hell yeah. Let's get outta here."

With that he dons his sunglasses and slips on the shoulder holster holding his ever-present revolver. I check myself in the mirror, thinking that while this red-with-white-trim western shirt looks dynamite on me (or makes me look dynamite in it), I can’t help feeling like it’s not quite me. I wish it were me, and maybe someday it will be. For now I look like a kid trying to be a dude, a kid who ought to at least call the folks back home and let them know where the hell he is.


 I settle up for us at the front desk and we hit the road.

4.


Once again we drive through the moonlit night. It is always him behind the wheel, even though he gifted the car to me months ago as part of our arrangement. On paper the car is mine, but in spirit and practice it’s still his.

I glance at him, adding to my album of mental snapshots, and then look out at the star-filled sky, thinking about how much he resembles his mama. No wonder he often talks as if she’s still alive – she’s always looking at him from the other side of the mirror.

Suddenly, without warning, he pulls the car off to the shoulder. He takes a deep breath and says: "Alright, Hoss. This feels right. I'm ready." He gets out of the car, shuts the door, and leans his head in the open window. "Take good care of her," he says, slapping the roof twice before walking off through the brush and the cactus. I watch for a moment as he departs, his white shirt illuminated by the moon, the only visible marker.

Then, as planned, I slide over to the driver's seat, put the vehicle in gear and pull away slowly. Not even two minutes go by, however, before I pull over, put her in park, and get out, looking in the direction he went, wanting to yell out his name, tell him to stop. But then I remember our agreement, and how now more than ever, my job is to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business. Moments later I see a tiny flash of white light followed a second later by an air-splitting pop.

 Mother and child reunion.

Finally driving away in earnest, I glance at the rearview mirror to see who's there but it's only me.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Vengeance or forgiveness?

One of the key arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it gives the families of victims some measure of closure and 'justice' by way of vengeance. While this may possibly be true in some cases, there are other families who have found solace by taking steps in the opposite direction. Witness the following recent news stories:
  • Chad Grossman, of Madison, Wisconsin, forgave his mother's and sister's killer, opting instead to blame inadequate mental health care funding. "Without proper care," he said, "things like this can happen." (The killer had previously sought help for mental health issues.)
  • In Iran, a man named Bilal was seconds away from being hanged for killing another man in a street fight when the victim's mother stood on a chair in front of him, gave him a wallop across the face, said "Forgiven!" and then proceeded to remove the noose, thus halting the execution.
  • Lucille Patrick, the mother of a slain Miami police officer has forgiven her son's killer, even though there are as of yet no known suspects. "When he left this world," she said of her son, "he gave me peace."
  • Confronting her son's killer in court, Newark mom Pamela Lighten said that, guided by faith, she has forgiven him. Nevertheless, she upbraided him for allowing "street violence to consume your soul. Black-on-black crime has to stop." Before taking her seat, she said "May God have mercy on your soul."
Fortunately for me, I have no idea how difficult it must be to muster the moral strength it takes to offer true forgiveness in the face of a devastating loss, nor do I want to ever find out. However, it would seem to be a much bigger way to honor a loved one's memory than simply compounding one murder with another.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Education, not executions: an open letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin


Dear Governor Fallin,
As a Canadian observing the recent events surrounding the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, I am bemused and stunned that one of your citizens, regardless of the heinousness of his crime, would suffer such a barbaric and inhumane death at the hands of the State of Oklahoma. As of this writing, it appears a second autopsy will be performed, which will hopefully go a long way to determine exactly how and why this happened as well as result in amending your state’s execution practices in the near future.
In a more general sense, however, this case points to the ethical difficulties involved in capital punishment. Before we go any further, consider the following facts:
·       As I’m sure you’re aware, FBI crime statistics show that states without the death penalty experience consistently lower murder rates than those with the death penalty by a margin of 46% in some years.

·       There is a sharp racial disparity among those sentenced to state execution, according to the Staff Report by the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Committee on the Judiciary (1994). According to the summary of that report, “Analysis of prosecutions under the federal death penalty provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 reveals that 89% of the defendants selected for capital prosecution have been either African-American or Mexican-American.” 

·      Despite conventional wisdom, there is evidence showing that the death penalty does not provide the victims’ families with a sense of justice and closure, and in fact can exact a painful toll on them. 
To me it seems too simplistic to assume a one-to-one relationship between a state’s murder rate and the existence of a death penalty, although I’m sure there must be something I’m not aware of that can explain the correlation. Nevertheless, I think the correlation vigorously dispels the notion that capital punishment is any kind of deterrent for would-be murderers.
It occurred to me that perhaps state spending on public education may play a role in alleviating the social conditions that lead to violent crimes, especially murder. Consider the Census Bureau report on education spending per-student by state, in which eight of the top ten states were those without the death penalty, with the others generally being clustered in the top half. Conversely, states with the death penalty monopolize the bottom ten in education spending, and generally dominate the bottom half of these figures. As you may or may not be aware, Oklahoma students finish third from the bottom on the list.
Taking all of the above into consideration, wouldn’t it make more sense, from a public safety perspective, to invest in public education rather than state execution, particularly given its demonstrated ineffectiveness as a deterrent, what appears to be its inherent racial bias, and the unhealthy effects it has on many victims’ families? Furthermore, at what point is the state knowingly complicit in future murders if a better deterrent isn’t sought?
Best of all, investing taxpayer money in education rather than execution would help the State of Oklahoma avoid the moral ambiguities involved in punishing murder with murder.
This letter will be published on my blog, as will any response, verbatim, that I receive from you. Thank you for your time and attention, and for considering this issue of conscience.
Sincerely,

James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bullying, micro and macro

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

-Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
It is encouraging to see how far our society has come in recognizing the harm caused by bullying, both to the victims as well as the community. I can remember a time when this was hardly the case. The memories of multiple instances of being shoved around and tormented by older kids in the schoolyard at recess, as the teacher on yard duty looked directly at me with vacant eyes and then simply walked on by, still haunts me all these years later. That feeling of my stomach being knotted in helplessness and rage is something I pray neither of my sons ever experience for themselves, particularly while under the supposedly watchful gaze of an authority figure, such as a teacher.

So, it was hardly surprising to read about the findings of a recent study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, where 20% of bullying victims reported bringing weapons to school. While I don’t agree with weapons of any kind being brought into our schools, it at least seems like a given that despair can lead to a person making very bad decisions.

At a very basic level, it’s easy to empathize with the impulse to fight back against an oppressor, and likewise it’s hard to feel sorry for a bully when they experience unintended consequences (or, blowback) for their actions. In reality, however, following through on said impulse can have very tragic consequences, particularly in an age where mass shootings at schools are sickeningly common.

On the one hand, children need to be taught to respect the human dignity of all their peers, and on the other they should be given the tools to cope with bullying in all of its variations: 
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. 
http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/ 
I have generally found, however, that what occurs on the schoolyard also occurs in the office, in the halls of power and on the world stage. Is it much of a stretch to imagine a segment of the population, or a race, or even a nation facing unwanted, aggressive behavior when an oppressor leverages a real or perceived power imbalance? And even when the 'blowback' takes a tragic turn, does this excuse the bullying that caused it?

For all the talk about bullying at the micro level to mean anything, we should also be conscious of it, and hold it in just as much contempt, at the macro level. Otherwise, to various oppressed groups, we become the disinterested school teacher on yard duty, and thus through inaction we join the bullies’ ranks.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

When the personal becomes non-political

If you read enough material on a variety of topics, you’ll occasionally find a passage from one source that resonates strongly with another passage from somewhere else, despite the topic of one being ostensibly different from the other. I was struck by an example of this recently.

In January I borrowed Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots ofCountry Rock by Peter Doggett from the Ottawa Public Library. I’ll spare you a book report, except to say there is a chapter in which he notes that the protest music of the mid- to late-1960’s had, by the mid-1970’s, given way to the more confessional approach of the so-called “singer-songwriter” tradition. Doggett opines that while the confessional stuff is to be lauded for its artistic value, it should also be criticized for being a retreat from concern for the wider community to something much more insular. The upshot of this, he says, is that the singer-songwriters (and in turn their listeners) became depoliticized, or at least much less radical, just in time for the 1980’s and all that decade has come to represent in popular memory. (The mantle of musical radicalism was happily and ferociously taken up the Dead Kennedys, but I'll save that for another time.)

As of this writing I can only recount the above by memory, as I returned the book, paid the overdue fines and moved on to other things. The passage was brought back to mind  last week, however, when I read an essay by Megan Behrent entitled The personal and the political: Literature and feminism in the Spring 2014 issue of International Socialist Review. In this piece, Behrent makes an observation about the trajectory of the feminist movement that seems analogous to Doggett’s opinion vis–à–vis protest music. In discussing the oft-used catchphrase “the personal is political”, she says that it initially referred to “…the need to understand the social, economic, cultural, and political oppression of women as the basis for all 'personal' problems that afflicted individual women.” Over time, however, the meaning of the term had changed. She writes:

In its later years, as the feminist movement itself collapsed amid myriad internal divisions, increasingly “the personal is political” came to represent an ideology that consciously advocated for individual or personal change as a solution to collective problems. Thus, whether one shaved one’s legs, wore makeup, or spelled women with a “y” was political and determined one’s relationship to feminism. This caricatured understanding of feminism’s legacy is part of the reason that subsequent generations have distanced themselves from second-wave feminism, becoming what is sometimes characterized as the “I’m not a feminist but…” generation.


The overlapping wisdom of these two passages seems to be that it is not enough to simply focus on yourself if you want to change the world – at some point you need to engage your fellow human beings and think beyond your own perfection. Put another way, a world that could really use your help will pass you by if you’re too busy gazing into the mirror.