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Given the current insistence upon the equality of women and men, it’s a sobering surprise to hear from so many feminists that women are, in the final analysis, merely the projections of their spouses. Or so it would appear, at least, given the opprobrium being heaped upon Laureen Harper for speaking at a fundraiser for homeless cats. In the middle of her speech she was interrupted by a young protester who raised the pressing issue of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. Ms. Harper agreed that this was a “great cause” but noted the purpose of the occasion, and didn’t engage further.

Now she’s the target of on-going critiques across the Internet. Apparently she has time for cats but not Aboriginal women. She probably thinks cats are more important. “Cats are cute and all but wouldn’t it be more helpful for the wife of the PM to actually be concerned about addressing an issue that affects women all across this country such as the lives of hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?” asks Melina Laboucan-Massimo, whose sister is the most recent Aboriginal victim of a suspicious death.

Should PM Harper himself call a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of hundreds of FN women across the country? One is well overdue—obviously he should. Does he give a damn? Probably not. We know that, despite his forked-tongue apology for the residential schools outrage, he and his government have done nothing since but obstruct First Nations in every way they can, whether it’s plowing ahead with pipelines that will lay waste to traditional FN lands, or removing key environmental protections for our waterways, or trying to impose FN education reforms from above, or fighting tooth and nail against equal social services for FN kids (and stalking their chief advocate for years), or trying the Great White Father approach to Attawapiskat (and getting slapped down by the courts for their pains).

A few hundred missing or murdered FN women? I doubt if Harper can muster up the energy to shrug.

But that’s not the point.

Laureen Harper isn’t Stephen Harper’s shadow. She’s more than “the wife of the PM.” She’s in fact a cat foster-mom and she volunteers for the Humane Society. She was at a meeting to pursue those interests. She holds no office, but happens to be married to someone who does. We don’t know her views on #MMIW, but there’s no reason to imagine that she considers a cat’s well-being more important than this on-going tragedy.

OK, we know that the CPC wants to “leverage” Ms. Harper. Having given up on ever finding Stephen’s warm side, the backroom folks want Laureen to play a proxy role. No doubt she’s expected to comply, as a dutiful wife should.

But do we care to concede Laureen Harper some agency? Isn’t that a fundamental tenet of feminism, that a woman is more than somebody’s wife, and may pursue interests and ideas that her husband and his minions didn’t assign to her? Or am I simply “mansplaining” here?

I’m not suggesting that I can see into Laureen Harper’s head. Maybe she does think that cats are more important than FN women. Maybe she’s no more than a willing tool in the hands of the assorted spinmeisters and flacks gearing up for 2015. Maybe she’s just a wife, after all, with no further interests or ambitions whatsoever.

Or not. She doesn’t strike me, at least, as someone out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I could be wrong. In any case, she’s not Stephen Harper. And, hard as this is for some folks to grasp, she’s not accountable for him—or to him. Let’s refocus on the people actually running the country, OK?

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Dr.Dawg

Good riddance

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Even within the benighted ranks of the Conservative Party of Canada, Rob Anders stood out: a walking nullity, his every word spoken as though by rote, a person for whom “convictions” were a sign, not of moral strength, but of a complete and utter inability to consider, reflect or question. He looked somewhat like a wax figure of himself, his face unlined, his brow unfurrowed; lacking the fire of inner certainty, he displayed instead the stuporous blandness of a patient under general anesthetic. “In a Commons loaded with lightweights,” said one seasoned commentator, “Calgary West’s MP almost defies gravity.”

How he managed to hang on for so long is somewhat of a mystery. No doubt Stephen Harper had much to do with that—the two of them went back to the old Reform Party days, and he was endorsed once again by Harper this time around, but to no avail. Even bogus telephone calls couldn’t save him. Until now nomination opponents in his riding association tended to be cut off at the pass, but his rival Ron Liepert will be the next MP from what is now Calgary-Signal Hill.

Anders was an embarrassment, one might have thought, to the constituents who returned him to his dozy seat in Ottawa six times. One almost felt called upon to make excuses for them. Yet with each successive election, he increased his popular vote; vox populi, vox dei, but sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways.

“When in doubt, pull the trigger,” he said to troops serving in Afghanistan. He publicly accused Tom Mulcair of hastening Jack Layton’s death. He called legislation to include gender identity in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code, a “bathroom bill.”

Alone among his Conservative colleagues and the whole House of Commons, he opposed honorary citizenship for Nelson Mandela, and refused to take his call when the great liberator and conciliator, demonstrating an almost superhuman spirit of charity, phoned to discuss Anders’ concerns. He publicly abused veterans who dared criticize him for nodding off when the plight of homeless vets was being discussed at the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He was forced to deliver a short apology in the House of Commons, which he read from a script, and was quietly removed from the Committee shortly afterwards.

Now he shall be removed from his seat, although we have more than a year to wait and no doubt to record some further gems along the way. It’s a long-overdue extraction, even by today’s much-lowered political standards. Anders represents the absolute worst in politics. He was no hot-headed zealot nor even, I would argue, a cold-blooded ideologue, the former requiring passion, the latter, calculation. He was simply an empty vessel, from time to time exuding mephitic fumes. His was not a presence, but a terrible absence of that which makes us human: he embodied the sheer and unremitting banality that has countenanced, encouraged and enabled some of the worst crimes in history.

That he had no opportunity to play such a role in quiet little Canada does not prevent us from recognizing the type. As always we are left wondering how such creatures come to be, and worse, acquire a following. Having no answer to that riddle, however, we can merely shudder with relief when another one of them falls.

[Photo: Christina Ryan, Postmedia]

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Dr.Dawg

No blood for oil

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There’s a cancer cluster in Fort Chipewyan, in the heart of the tar sands region, but the Alberta government says it won’t investigate.

There’s a long background history here. A local physician, Dr. John O’Connor, first raised the issue in 2003. He had discovered several cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer, in Fort Chip’s small population (mostly First Nations people), a much higher occurrence than might happen by chance, and he dared to write about it.

For his pains, he was hounded by Health Canada and the Orwellianly-named Alberta Health and Wellness, beginning in 2006 when Harper had just been elected. Bogus charges were laid against him, which could have cost him his medical licence. After a two-year battle, he was cleared, although he was effectively run out of town, moving to Nova Scotia for a quieter time of it.

This ham-handed attempt to muzzle Dr. O’Connor, with its resonances of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, obviously didn’t put an end to the matter. The cancer cluster is by now a well-established fact, confirmed by statistics released just last month by none other than Alberta’s chief medical officer, James Talbot. But Talbot says he has no plans to look into the causes. Heaven knows what that might turn up.

People in Fort Chip are getting sick and dying. Fish in the waterways are hideously deformed. Oil sands development is the likely cause of the pollution of these waterways by known carcinogens. But those who speak out, like Dr. O’Connor, are targeted by the provincial and federal governments; and the man whose remit is the health of Albertans refuses to investigate. Meanwhile, the alleged toxicity of windmills in rural Ontario is under review by the Harper government.

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The corporate mass media do not exist to inform, in some “objective” sense. Their effect is to maintain the status quo, the “natural order of things,” and we can observe the various techniques by which they, wittingly or unwittingly, accomplish this imperative. And no, I’m not talking conspiracy here, if I seriously have to state the obvious in 2014. There’s a a complex dynamic at work, described by Chomsky and Althusser, inter alia, and it’s, well, old news, isn’t it?

Do “radical” voices get media attention? On occasion, presented as a kind of exhibit. Are marginal voices well-reported? Well, that’s a trick question: obviously they wouldn’t be “marginal” if they were. Is a full spectrum of political opinion available for public consideration? Even the Greens and the NDP are frequently considered “out there” by reporters and in the nauseatingly comfortable petit-bourgeois punditry that passes for informed comment in Canada. Again, old news.

The so-called “MSM” sing lullabies to us, and put people into a sound sleep. But that’s not the only technique at work.

The other major one is the generation and maintenance of fear. For crude on-going examples, check out the Toronto SUN. Fear opens us up to easy solutions to be carried out, not by ourselves, but by authority: “lock and load,” or “keep them behind bars,” etc. Fear immobilizes and demobilizes. Fear diverts attention from the outside world, and re-focuses it on ourselves and our “precious bodily fluids.”

Which brings me to pancakes.

Here is a classic case of fearmongering without substance. Pancake syrups like the one pictured above, we are told, may cause cancer. People who use popular brands may be putting themselves at a higher risk of developing cancer, a new report reveals. They contain a colourant called 4-MeI, a potential carcinogen. “We’re concerned because this chemical has been shown to cause cancer in mice and is a possible human carcinogen.”

But wait! “[I]t’s not pancake syrup that actually poses the greatest risk: some soft drinks have significantly higher levels of caramel colouring, and therefore higher levels of 4-MeI.” And: “4 -MeI in syrup is less of a concern than in soft drinks because people tend to consume far less syrup.”

And, finally, the authorities, in this case corporations, are reacting: “The report shows, however, that levels of 4-MeI in certain products were lower in December than they were when previously tested, ‘suggesting that some manufacturers may be taking steps to reduce levels, which would be a step in the right direction.’”

To re-cap: No proof pancake syrups are dangerous. No proof a commonly-used colourant is an actual carcinogen. And we haven’t even gotten to soft drinks yet. But “they” are already doing something about this “threat.”

What do stories like this do? They first arouse fear. Then they make it clear that any solution to the imminent danger is out of our hands. Then they assure us that’s it’s being looked at by benevolent authorities, so no need to panic. Sleep tight.

As a coda, note the illustration above, a bottle of (possible) poison. Not only does the dark Mrs. Butterworth conjure up her sister Aunt Jemima, in her old and new, more subdued manifestations: she, a Black woman, is now the very personification of a threat. No matter: it’s being taken care of.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here: the topic bears much more discussion. Fire away.

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Mandos

Slippers

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Does anyone remember that television programme, Sliders, from way back when? It wasn’t so great that I can more than only vaguely recall it. In Sliders, Annoying Fake Physics Student invents some sort of way to travel between parallel universes, but neglects to include a way to get back to his correct timeline. That’s all to the good because he and Special Sidekick Team Including Fat Professor discover some kind of threat to the “Prime” Earth (ours), which they wouldn’t have if they had included a “back” button in their universe browser.

Naturally all the “parallel” worlds they visit are actually enormously divergent from ours, but often in amusing, slightly dangerous (occasionally VERY dangerous) ways. Somehow, Annoying Fake Physics Student and Special Sidekick Team Including Fat Professor manage to eat and clothe themselves in the meantime. In one very HI-larious episode, they even stumble on (get this!) a world almost exactly like ours…BUT DOMINATED BY WOMEN. Total role reversal, with dependent weepy men obsessing over relationships, the whole nine yards. I mean, can you imagine the opportunities for hilarity with a premise like that? Heh, female dominated world, har har. Needless to say, Fat Professor in particular strikes a blow for MANkind. Yeah, that’s the spirit.

Anyway, I just had an idea for a knock-off show, we’ll title it provisionally Slippers. In Slippers, our protagonist (male, of course, if it’s ever going to make it to air) is an art history student who discovers, quite by accident, a special psychic power: the ability to “slip” into other parallel universes, but only if that universe is very similar to the one which he came from with. That means, only very trivial differences. For example, someone somewhere ate a donut rather than a muffin, but otherwise their day was exactly the same.

In fact, our protagonist realizes that he might have been “slipping” between parallel universes for a long time before he noticed it—-when his coffee suddently emptied in his hand because he had drunk it in the “next” universe slightly faster (but nothing else different happened). There’s some room for some eye-catching special effects and camera tricks here. As he learns to control his ability, he starts “slipping” in a more controlled fashion between different universes in what will be a long-running search for his “home” universe. Of course, part of the problem (and a source of hijinks!) is that detecting how the universes he has entered differ from his original one or even whether he has actually reached his original universe.

In one cliffhanger season finale, Art History Student will actually decide that he has finally reached “home” and marries his girlfriend. Fast forward a number of years, when he’s at home having dinner with his 7 and 9 year old children. Art History Student (now Unionized Civil Servant Government Moocher) will announce to his kids that he and Mummy are taking them on a trip to Europe! And he can’t wait to show them the Eiffel Tower.

Older child: “Daddy, what’s the Eiffel Tower?”

Unionized Civil Servant Government Moocher: “Hold on, let me Bing it up for you on my Palm Treo 2020.”

Bing: [whatever Bing says when it can’t find a search result, I have no idea, who uses Bing?]

Unionized Civil Servant Government Moocher: “Oh my gawd! I’ve been in this universe for a decade and I never noticed that the Eiffel Tower was never built!?! I MUST GET BACK TO MY OWN TIMELINE.”

Because, you know, everything else is exactly the same. He just made a slightly larger “slip” than usual. Eventually he will start to wonder what exactly happens to the versions of him already in the timelines he enters…at some point by the third season.

I am ready to sign a contract with any interested director. Just contact Dawg, he’ll send you my deets.

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Mandos

Putting food on the table

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Speaking of theatre, embattled Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently decided to block Twitter out of what appears to be sheer pique at the whole Internet for making him look corrupt. Erdoğan is, alas, one of those classic cases of failing to quit while one is ahead, through arrogance having pooped on what might have been his own formidable legacy. The only explanation for the behaviour, which, no matter how it ends, will no longer end with him as Turkey’s next great man of history, is either that he had a brain haemmorhage or (practically certain) the corruption allegations are true — or even worse than known — and the walls were closing in.

Twitter is really popular in Turkey, more so than in many other countries, and the response has largely been one of circumvention, to the point that the Turkish president tweeted critically about the ban. But despite the fact that it’s been now a couple of years into political instability in Turkey, Erdoğan’s AKP is still very popular in many quarters of the country. The truth is, for many Turks, particularly those far away from the wealthy urban centers, Erdoğan is the man who put food on the table. That is the weakness of many of these liberal-populist revolts, and not just in Turkey. As admirable as they may sound, they fail to explain how exactly they’re going to put food on the table for those in the hinterlands, especially for countries that have a lot of hinterland. Russia is another case in point. In fact, the accusation that the leaders “buy votes” translates in the mind of the residents of the peripheral zones that the opponents will not “buy votes” — ie, will increase or, at least, fail to mitigate the immediate suffering of a large portion of the population.

So it should come as no surprise that the AKP, despite all this, is for now still competitive, and that “corruption” in the service of your family’s prosperity translates easily in the mental models of the economically marginal to the normal act of banding together for group survival. The suspicion that the opposition is a stalking horse for Kemalists (read: keeping hijab-wearing girls out of school; now likely only partly true due to the involvement of the Gülen movement) is just the sumac sprinkled on your Adana kebab. Bottom line: liberalism only gets you so far, if it’s economic liberalism.

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Dr.Dawg

Cuban jazz

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A week at Club Amigo Los Corales, a low-cost resort 51 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba, is not free of adventure, even if most of the climatic refugees from Canada there want nothing less, here only for the sun, the unlimited booze and passable food—all of which came to us with the smiles and greetings that mark resort life the world over.

But I’m one of those who get bored with morning Cuba libres or the variant I prefer, las Cubitas, made with dark rum. I burn in the impossibly bright sun of the Caribbean. And pool life is best experienced in measured doses, watching my fellow lobster-Canadians splashing around carelessly and making too many trips to the open bar while I stayed in the shade reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and hydrating from time to time with Cristal, the national beer, or one of them.

¡Ya basta! I need Santiago de Cuba, and I have heard that a late-night jazz club has opened. Under a sky that has parched the land around the resort to a patchy barrenness punctuated with donkey droppings, I make the arrangements: I would do a half-day tour to get a sense of the place, and stay behind. So we bussed in to the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, passing the Moncada garrison where Fidel made his false start on July 26, 1953, and the rich people’s houses turned into day-care centres, schools, clinics, and a vast cultural palace, whence the fellow who owned Bacardi had fled after the revolution finally triumphed. There was a MIG fighter on the lawn donated by Nikita Khrushchev for the kids to play in. I remained behind to take my unpractised ease on the terrace of the Hotel Casa Granda in the Parque Cespuedes, knocking back some Cristal as I waited for the 34℃ furnace of the afternoon to mellow into a Santiago evening.

It did, and I did.

The rhythm section I had been listening to for half a day (see above), filling the entire square with an incessant salsa beat, went home for the night. In the square there was to be a concert, so I ambled down from the terrace and found a park bench. A man in his forties soon joined me, pointing to his skin colour and my own feverish hue and commenting that in three days I would be a Cubano. He introduced himself as Jorge, a teacher of mathematics and chess, and as the top player in Santiago, who had once had a game with the legendary Bobby Fischer. He was soon joined by a pleasant 50ish woman whom he introduced as his mother. The three of us listened to the concert, standing for the national anthem as did everyone on the brightly-lit plaza, and then Jorge and I headed off to pick up some trifle at a local store. The streets grew darker and narrower, the store was found, the purchase made, and he suggested we have a mohito at a local restaurant.

Well, why not. The night was young, the jazz club far from its opening time, and so we walked another couple of blocks, found the restaurant, and just then, slightly out of breath, his mother caught up with us and the three of us climbed steep flights of stairs to the roof level. There was Santiago, spread out before us under the light of a full moon.

The two ordered mojitos, but I was in the mood for another cerveza. Jorge disappeared for a moment: his mother moved close, kissed my hands, voltage pouring off her, and then Jorge returned. He’d ordered some food, but, stuffed with a cheap fried chicken dinner at the Casa Granda, I had indicated I wanted nothing. Shortly afterwards, two huge and attractive lobster dinners were set before them, and a plate of salad.

At that point I began to worry. I had brought only convertible pesos, no wallet, no passport, no credit cards, and I needed 30 pesos to get back to my resort. It was evident that I was expected to pay for all this, noblesse oblige or whatever the Spanish was, and I was seriously low in dinero. Meanwhile, the mother had notched up to incandescence, and Jorge said that older women really knew what the young chicas did not. “You want to take her to your hotel, no problem.” “You want my seester” is a stupid cliche, but his mother?

When the bill came, my heart sank low into my sandals. I simply didn’t have the amount required, unless I was going to walk 51 kilometres back to the resort. I explained the problem, and their demeanour swiftly changed. They both looked concerned, said this was a serious problem, and that the owners might have to call the police. A dead calm settled upon me. I knew that the last folks these people would want to meet would be the local cops. I suggested that there was no help for it, and that the call should be made. Fierce negotiation followed: I had given Jorge ten pesos earlier in return for some tale of woe, and that ended up in the pot. I scratched together a few more, but we still didn’t make the total required. The “mother,” henceforward in quotation marks, found a plastic bag in her purse and dumped the leftovers into it. The waiter looked very grave.

We were taken down to see the proprietress, a large no-nonsense woman with bleached hair, whose displeasure was evident. I tried to make myself understood, and then, thank goodness, it turned out she spoke French. Hadn’t I seen the menu? No? But you ate? No, only one beer I had.

She softened considerably upon hearing that. She counted the bills and coins, then, with a warm smile, told me to go enjoy the sun. I was down the stairs like a shot, leaving Jorge and his “mother” behind. At the doorway three tough-looking cubanos lounged. Oh-oh, I thought, but wished them a Buenas noches. “Buenas noches,” they said to me affably, and I indicated the general direction of the plaza—“Hotel Casa Granda?” “Si,” and they pointed down the street.

I found my taxi driver, told him plans had changed, and an hour later I was back at Los Corales. I had a stiff Cubata and went to bed.

The story of the lobster dinners was passed around the next day, and jokes about lobster-ladies continued until I returned home. But I hadn’t made the Yazz Cloob yet, and so I made arrangements to get back to the fleshpots of Santiago the following day, heading into the city on the hotel workers’ bus in the evening. They were piling on, three spontaneously breaking into that old slogan, ¡Por la revolución todo, fuera de la revolución nada! Everyone was in high good humour as we bumped along. At the outskirts of the city, some more locals got on, including a Los Corales beach bartender still wearing the St. Patrick’s Day hat someone had given him. Flashes of mutual recognition. Then I was in the Parque de Marte, right beside the Jazz Club, it so happened. But the night was still young, so I cabbed it to the Casa Granda and settled in with a Cristal.

No more dallying with strangers in parks. I ordered a brochette of pork and some papa fritas, and watched the clock. I was supposed to have a chaperone that evening, a local friend of a Canadian couple back at the resort. A deaf magician showed up and did some passable magic tricks, including placing two scarves at the neck of a ravishing chica one table from me which, when pulled away, had a bra attached. She caught my eye and indicated that her real one was still in place. She asked me if I wanted “a particular lady for one hour.” I politely declined, and she smiled and said “No problem.” Just as well, because I was running out of lobster-money.

Two or three cervezas later, my local had not appeared, and it was ten o’clock. I cabbed it back to the Jazz Club, and the driver’s pal who’d called it and accompanied us went inside with me, which was fortunate. No one was playing that evening. “Twes-day” said the owner. And so back to the resort we went at a clip, the dark highway covered with land-crabs the size of saucers. The driver managed to avoid running most of them over, which I took kindly.

I met up with my friends, and burst into helpless laughter, and we drank into the wee hours of the morning. On departure, staff wished us well, and a tour guide I had befriended asked if I was coming back.

Oh, yes, ciertamente. I hear Cuban jazz is some of the best in the world.

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Balbulican

We Got Yer Kozmic News...

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The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference at 12:00 noon EDT (16:00 UTC) on Monday, March 17th, to announce a major discovery.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe all of us who were kids during the Mercury and Gemini Programs still feel a bit of a thrill at the notion of a major discovery in space. Yeah, yeah, NASA is a mismanaged, politicized money-sink,nerd haven and instrument of the military industrial thingie. Yep. Money on space research would better be spent eliminating malaria and promoting literacy. I know, I know.

But…a major discovery! Space!

Maybe it’s because a news cycle dominated by Fords and Chow, Harper and Putin, and missing airliners is beginning to feel too weary, stale, flat and unprofitable to follow. Maybe winter’s been too long and we need some good news. Whatever the case, they got me. What a great teaser. I’ll be listening.

More to the point - what major discovery? Can anyone resist speculating? Could it be…

a) Having just been informed of its demotion from “Planet” to “Minor Planet”, Pluto has left its orbit and is heading toward Earth. And boy, is it PISSED.

b) Kim Jong Un has declared that North Korea, as one of the world’s last communist countries, is laying claim to Jupiter, following a briefing from his science advisers informing him that the planet features a Great Spot for Reds.

c) Disturbing images just received from the Voyager probe seem to show the interior wall of a huge sphere that extends in all directions, painted with stars, and bearing a small plaque reading “ROTFLMAO. Told You So. Aristotle.”

Other possibilities before mundane (well, maybe not “mundane”) reality disappoints us all on Monday?

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Balbulican

Executive Exchange

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