Friday, November 12, 2010

Lakeshore - the Cultural Mosaic gets Trashed ...

I, not having cable, have never seen Jersey Shores. But I HAVE seen the promo for the Canadian rip-off, Lakeshore, which is coming soon to some channel near you that will, thankfully, not be beaming in through my bunny ears. This promotional video is so mired in reality television tropes, that I seriously thought it was a satire when I first saw it on a friend’s facebook feed (he was so appalled that he didn’t want to confirm it was real, and didn’t want to check up on whether it had been mentioned in the news so he could remain in his belief that it was a joke …. But of course he shared it with the rest of us …). We have the under-dressed 20-somethings who all describe themselves as “fun”, “sexy”, “crazy”, or some combination thereof. It appears they do things like drink a lot and show off their chests. They maybe live in the same house, but there doesn’t appear to be any kind of contest inherent in the show. What is fascinating is that the producers have decided to cast all first- or second-generation Canadians, who are identified by their ethnic origin: “the Armenian;” “the Vietnamese” etc. There is nary a WASP in sight. On the one hand, it’s an interesting concept – a recognition of the cultural mosaic that is Toronto, which is a good thing. But, ah, then you have “the Turk” saying “I’m not racist. I hate everyone equally. Especially Jewish people,” and I’m pretty sure that this stereotypical parody of a reality show is going to keep its cultural diversity message at the level of stereotypical parody of the stars’ native cultures …. I sure hope that fine minds at Racialicious get a whiff of this – I’d love to see some good analysis from someone more qualified than myself (and, uh, with cable …).

Too Smart for Everyday Life

As a child, I benefitted from our board of education’s “enrichment” program. I got to leave class to do fun activities once a week, and spend a day with kids from all over the county once a month. We did science projects and word puzzles. I remember visiting the weather station in Wiarton once. We made friends and had crushes on all the “exotic” kids who were from some small town other than the one in which we’d grown up. But I spent most of my time in my own class with the kids who lived on my block, who were in my Sunday School class, who were born down the hall from me at the same hospital.

And I am very grateful that I had the opportunities I did through Trail (as our program was called). But I am also very grateful that I did spend most of my time in my “normal” class. I think that growing up with people with different interests and abilities is important. As I’ve continued my education, my direct circle of friends and acquaintances has become more and more educationally (and socio-economically) homogenous. What would I have gained if that streaming had started when I was 8?

All of this is one of the many reasons why I was so annoyed with the following paragraph in a Globe and Mail article about “gifted” programs for children: “Calgary parent Ralamy Kneeshaw didn’t want to wait until Grade 4, so she worked to get her son enrolled at Westmount in Grade 3. “They don’t become gifted at Grade 4,” she says. Her son was enjoying some extra attention at his old school in a “pull-out” program once a week, but it wasn’t enough. “He was only gifted for an hour a week. He loved that. But then he had to go back to regular everyday life.””

This parent has a completely skewed vision of what it means to be “gifted”. Her child is “gifted” all the time. Whatever intellectual capabilities have gotten him labelled as such exist no matter what kind of classroom setting he’s in. It’s the preferential treatment that he only gets once a week. And maybe that’s ok. A lot of life, even for those of us blessed with a superior intellect at the age of 8, as this child apparently is, is “regular everyday life”. I can hardly imagine that this parent is helping her son to be anything other than dissatisfied with it, if she expects his talents to be developed and catered to every minute of every day. A child who is raised to believe he’s too good for regular everyday life is not likely to turn out to be the kind of person we will want leading our next generation – an aspiration perhaps worthy for overly-involved parents of gifted kids?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Shameless Self-Promotion Edition

For the past several months, I have been volunteering as a coordinator for the One World Film Festival. It's been a challenge - it's a lot to do in my spare time, and I've frequently felt out of my element. More than once, it looked like the festival might not happen, but now it's only two weeks away, and we have a line-up of amazing films. And, one of our amazing volunteers has made this amazing video to promote it!

The video makes me excited about this event that has consumed so much of my summer and fall. And to all of my 8 faithful readers ... help to make OWFF a success - come watch fabulous documentaries at the Library and Archives, November 5-7, and tell 8 of your friends ....

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gender Studies, Classics, and Who we Are

Leah MacLaren wrote a piece last week encouraging undergraduates to steer clear of gender studies, and to stick to the classics. Her argument (I think) is that, in the end, women’s studies (or the new studies of masculinity) are facile, while classical literature and philosophy, which just happens to be mainly by men, contains real revelations about humanity that these theories can’t even come close to elucidating.

Now, I’ll agree with Leah that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about human nature and that we don’t necessarily do students of literature any favours by inserting random female writer here just to make sure we have a woman’s voice in our Elizabethan literature class, if the woman in question couldn’t really write (I once took a class entitled literature and social change, which ended up being exclusively on suffragist literature …. while it would have made a fascinating unit in a larger class, there really weren’t enough suffragists who could write well to, in my opinion, warrant an entire class to their work – I had been hoping for Voltaire, Swift, Martin Luther King Junior’s speech, and maybe some Bob Dylan.)

Gender, whether you believe it’s biologically determined or socially constructed, effectively divides the world’s population into two halves (yes, I know that I am ignoring middle-sex, transgender, gender-queer …. but that’s outside of the scope of what I’m trying to say, so work with me …) and which half you fit into has such a profound effect of your life, no matter what culture you live in, that I can’t agree with Leah that the study of gender is facile. Maybe some of the theories that emerged in the early days of the second wave of feminism are, but all the more reason for a continued academic dialogue on the topic, an antithesis to these early theses from which new understandings of how the gender assigned to us affects the choices we have and, ultimately, the quality of the lives we live.

liberal guilt

It’s always strange to return to the blog after a bit of a hiatus – I feel like my first post back has to be somehow momentous, but I don’t always have momentous thoughts …. so it can delay the post even further. This is not a momentous post, but I’m getting back on the horse.

One of the many things I’ve been doing while not blogging for the past few months is organizing the One World Film Festival . This means I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about people from all over the world. For a fundraiser for the festival last week, we showed Remnants of a War, a movie about de-miners who are working to clear up cluster bombs in South Lebanon. Most of these people are locals who go every day out into the fields and orchards of their homeland to find and remove bombs. I’ve also been watching films about Afghani-Canadians who broadcast a radio station to Kandahar from Ontario and American honey farmers who are trying to deal with colony collapse syndrome (among others).

And seriously, the world is so much bigger than my little corner of Ottawa, and there are so many problems that are so much bigger than whether I have a functional iPod for when I work out or time to wax my legs. And I know that, by watching the films and reading the books, I am aware these problems exist, and I can put faces to them, and that’s something. But even though I watch the films and read the books, I still put the vast majority of my energy into things that, in the end, will really only serve to make my life more pleasant. But how do I get beyond that, and how do I get beyond knowing what’s going out there, but actually doing something about it, rather than just wallowing in liberal guilt?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

histories and apologies

In the news this week, the PM of the United Kingdom has given an unqualified apology for Bloody Sunday. I’ve also been reading about apologies for civilian massacres in Guatemala during the civil war. Both stories talk about how much it meant for the survivors to have the government stand up and say that what happened was wrong, and that the victims were innocent.

These stories caught my attention because we were talking about apologies for past wrongs at our Jean Vanier talk the other day. Jean Vanier spoke in his lecture about forgiveness: he said that to forgive a group, you had to start with an individual, so that you had a real human to deal with, instead of just considering the whole group as a faceless mass. As an illustration, Vanier talked about a young black woman who had hated all whites for all the oppression they had caused, and continue to cause, until she made a white friend in high school and realized that that individual, at least, was a person just like her.

And, while I hesitate to weigh in at all, from my position of privilege, I couldn’t help but wonder – while there are many things that we privileged whites have to own up to and apologize for here and now, is it fair, or productive, to hold me responsible for the abuses of generations past? Is there a statute of limitations on apologies, or is it better late than never, even if 200 years have passed? Our histories are important, especially in a multi-cultural experiment like Canada, and I don’t doubt that we have to name our mistakes, and accept them as part of our communal story, but how do we strike the balance so that we can do that, without forever looking back?

where we live and how we live

I haven’t been writing much over the past few months. So, what have I been doing? Well, among other things, buying a house and going to Spain ….

PJ and I got talking at Easter about the fact that it might be time to move. We like our condo, but we’d like a bit more space, and a yard so we can have a garden. So, the search began, and we finally found the perfect place – it’s a middle of 3 row-houses in Chinatown with a little space out back to do some planting and put up a clothesline, a 3rd bedroom, so we can separate our office/sewing room from the guest room, and a basement for storage.

The whole process was, of course, fraught with anxiety. Should we be buying a bigger place? Paying more? Giving up location for yard? Giving up yard for location? The bank would have given us a lot more money if we’d wanted it, and the house inspector definitely found a few flaws in the 100-year-old property that we’ve chosen. So, even though we’re excited, there’s been an undercurrent of questioning whether we made the right decision.

But then, we spent a week in Spain. The trip was a total reality check re. the North American expectations around housing. In Spanish cities, most people, whether they own or rent, live in apartments. And in a city like Barcelona, which has been inhabited since the Roman empire, 100-year-old properties are just like new! Seeing how the Spanish live has reinforced the reasons that we chose our new place, shared drainage aside: we’re going to be able to store some things, but we’ll have to continue to be smart about what we accumulate; we’re going to be right downtown in a mixed neighbourhood close to work and friends; and we’re going to be able to entertain people, without being lost in our rooms when it’s just the two of us at home.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Becoming Human

For the last 2 Mondays, I've met with a few friends to listen to audio recordings of Jean Vanier's 1998 Massey Lecture "On Becoming Human" . The thesis (from what I've heard so far, we're not done the series yet ...) is that we all need to be in deep community to really experience life the way it's meant to be. That we need to be loved for our individuality. At Ecclesiax, we've always talked about community - about how the idea of the church is to be really, caringly, involved in each others' lives. But I don't think we've ever really done it. And I don't know if we can - can you actually bring together a random assortment of people and really create a family? Most communities, as Vanier says, are based on commonalities or, more specifically, on common strengths. This is equally true of churches - but then how do you create a church that is actually inclusive of, and encourages, difference, when it's the common ties that bind? And it doesn't have to be church - whatever groups you are in, how do you make them a "community"? To be honest, there's people that I don't want to be in community with, people whose company I don't enjoy. It's easy to say that I should still be nice to them and treat them with dignity and respect, but Vanier's call is to enter into relationship with them. Blech. I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if anyone can. I feel like I'm I long way from becoming human.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Helping those who help themselves

Last week, I attended a workshop on security sector reform (known as SSR in the biz – and I am talking about working with developing countries to reform their police and justice systems, etc, rather than financial markets ….). Of course, one of the big issues in undertaking this kind of exercise is local engagement – we shouldn’t just be importing “our” system into someone else’s context, so the idea is that the locals should be the ones driving the process. This seems like a no-brainer in a supposedly post-colonial world, and echoes some of what I have recently read about the need to integrate traditional justice in Afghanistan.

But, it gets tricky in practice. First of all – which locals are we engaging? The government and the people could have very different interests. In a simulation that we did as part of the workshop, the representative for civil society was pushing for transitional justice, while everyone in the government, who would be implicated by any kind of truth-telling process, were resisting. Or, there may be a rural/ urban split in which a few elites want one thing, and everyone else wants something else. Traditional justice, while widely-used, could be based on a gender or class hierarchy that doesn’t respect human rights. Can we, as a country that supports universal equality, help to develop a system somewhere else that undermines it?

Next, as well as our responsibility to support local direction, we also have a responsibility to spend our money well. In the simulation, the Minister of Justice for the host country was pushing for assistance to build more courthouses. I am not convinced that, as a starting point, that is the best way to improve access to justice. But I was supposed to be supporting local ownership. It was hard not to feel like an imperial baddie when I was saying that perhaps our resources would go farther doing something less focused on physical plant, and more on human capacity.

We didn’t come out of the workshop with answers to any of these questions, but we at least came out being aware that they have to be asked. Development is hard, and there is never going to be a one-size fits all solution. We need to be smart about what kind of help we offer (I recently heard about an initiative to send wheelchairs to Afghanistan – very thoughtful, but not particularly practical in a country with a serious shortage of pavement ….), but we can’t give up either.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


My parents’ copy of Sisters in the Wilderness (the biography of early Canadian authors Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) has been on my bookshelf for around 7 years now. It made it onto the back layer of the top shelf at some point, so it didn’t exactly leap out when I’d go looking for something to read, until a recent re-org brought all my unread books to one place, at eye-level. And, to be honest, I was expecting it to be a bit dull – something that I kind of felt like I should read as a good female Canadian English major, but not something that I was really going to be dying to pick up.

But, after my most recent dose of Twilight, I was ready for something a bit weightier, so I decided to give it a go: and it’s been incredibly interesting. The story of these two sisters touches on everything from survival as pioneer homesteaders, to the challenges facing female authors, to old-world prejudices against uncouth colonials, to the influence of the Orange Order, all the way to spiritualism and table-rapping. And it’s reminded me that good biography is history through the lens of a life. And really, that’s what history is. It isn’t dates or artefacts – it’s the lives of people who, like ourselves, have fractured identities, and make choices based on circumstance and necessity, but nevertheless build things up and tear things down, and in doing so lay the foundation for the world as we know it.

being an artist

Ecclesiax is organizing an art auction to raise money for relief in Haiti (Evening of February 26, for anyone in O-town who’s interested in attending), and I am donating some photography. I think this is a great initiative, but it’s also weird to call myself a visual artist and try to sell my art. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I love taking pictures, because it makes me see what’s around me. And, yes, I like it when my shots work out.

But this is something different. This is me standing up and saying “I take good enough pictures that someone who doesn’t even know me should want to put them on the wall.” And that’s a vulnerable experience – because if nobody does want my photos, it will be hard not to take it personally. I’ve been through this with singing, acting and writing over the years (even this blog carries the same anxieties of “I am assuming I have something worth saying …. Maybe I don’t”): it’s scary to stand up and own my talents, because then they are open to being refuted.

It’s like I am trying to cross some kind of line from amateur to “real” artist. And I know that that’s not the point: the fact that taking pictures makes me see the world through more fine-tuned eyes is reason enough to keep taking pictures, even if nobody wants to buy what I offer to the auction. But it’s still scary to put it out there, to let perfect strangers decide whether the way I have captured what I see is actually interesting or not …

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A little education is a dangerous thing

At work, I've been reading about women and development, and particularly about women's experiences in Jamaica. At home, I recently finished Miriam's Song by Mark Mathabane, the story of the author's sister growing up in South Africa during apartheid. I noticed a theme in all of my reading: the importance of education. In both Jamaica and South Africa, young girls go to school despite poverty and sexual and physical insecurity. Around the world, studies that show that in homes where women manage the household income, the children eat better. And it's easier to be in charge, and to provide for your family when you have an education. So, I was planning, at the end of last week, to sit down and write a blog post about the importance of education in general, and educating girls in specific.

But before I got a chance to write that post, I came across an article talking about how Americans have turned the term the "educated class" into a dirty word. Apparently, "educated" people are out of touch with "real" people. And this rhetoric proves that a little education is, indeed, a dangerous thing. Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison, but continued to study throughout, because he knew that his country would need educated people to lead it when the liberation struggle was over. Teaching slaves to read in the American South was forbidden, because the more educated they were, the harder they would be to control. This was the same idea behind the inferior "Bantu Education" that Miriam and Mark Mathabane were subject to in South Africa. Across time, and around the world, people, quite literally, have been willing to die for the right to learn.

But in the United States, where lower education is universal, anyone who continues on to higher learning (I am assuming the "educated class" refers to university-educated) is vilified. And this position shows a total lack of awareness of how privileged Americans are to have education. It's like voter's apathy - only a society that is as sure of its democracy as ours here in Canada, or the U.S., could have the kind of low turn-outs at the polls that we have. Saying that the problem with people that you don't agree with is that they're "educated" doesn't only miss the fact that "education" makes a person more able to think critically and expand her worldview, but it undermines, and shows a total lack of awareness for, the struggles of people around the world to improve their lives through education.