April 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, I was teaching the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Great Chinese Famine in my Modern China course. One thing that struck my students was that this wasn’t really a famine, it was a manufactured crisis. The granaries of the People’s Republic of China were full, and yet, Mao and his underlings refused to open them up. Rather, this was an attempt by Mao Zedong to remake the Chinese countryside and peasantry, to increase industrial output, and to modernize the nation. This came in the wake of a purification campaign in the country in the early 1950s, as the Communists attempted to stamp their imprint on the nation.
As we discussed the manufactured nature of this famine, and we discussed Mao’s insistence on ideological reform of China, something struck me. Famines are rarely just that, famines. They are often manufactured crisis. One of my students is a interested in the Soviet Union and Russian history in general, and he noted that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 was a man-made one, too.
This led to a discussion about ideology, reform, and the costs of absolutism, though both of our examples were communist. But then I thought of the Irish Famine. Like China and the Ukraine, the Great Hunger was a manufactured crisis. And, of course, the United Kingdom was, in the mid-19th century, the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.
In both China and the Ukraine, famine was the result of collectivization, but this was not the case in Ireland. There, famine came because the potato crop failed for several years, beginning in 1845, due to a fungal infection. But the failure of the crop became a humanitarian crisis due to the policies of the British government.
Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was very clear in his response to the Famine He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’
And thus, as a devotee of laissez-faire liberalism, Trevelyan was slow to respond to the Irish crisis, seeing it as a gift from the Almighty. And while he was only a civil servant, ultimately, he was backed by his political bosses. That this was so was acknowledged by Tony Blair when he was the British Prime Minister in the late 90s. On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine, he issued an apology for the role of the British government in the Famine.
The Great Hunger of Ireland was a manufactured crisis, and as Irish food continued to be exported to Great Britain, the Irish starved. The United Kingdom, thus, is no different than Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.
And so, famine is often used as a political tool, as a means of forcing reform on a recalcitrant population.
And Sir Charles Trevelyan, knighted for his ‘services’ to Ireland, along with the leadership of the UK at the time, most notably Lord John Russell and even Queen Victoria, fit right in there with Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.
January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend. I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why. In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past. When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery. They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years. So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.
But this year, something has changed. I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger. I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had. No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s. And then there’s the question of football and CTE. I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football. Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.
Hockey isn’t doing much better. We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death. This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on. Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially. His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years. Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?
To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play. And, yes, part of that is their own choice. But, there are also structural issues here. Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not. Teams have pushed painkillers on players. And then there’s brain injuries. The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.
But that doesn’t do much for the current game. Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground. Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars. After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.
Then there’s the NHL. A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it. The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries. Seriously. It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s. This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.
And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey. Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating. And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.
Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports. Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice. That’s part of the game. Hitting is central to both. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with blatant head shots. I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field. I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE. I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.
And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.
November 27, 2017 § 3 Comments
This past weekend was Grey Cup weekend in Canada. The Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders met at TD Place Stadium in the Nation’s Capital. The Argos won 27-24 in another classic. In the lead up to the game, Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie declared that ‘we don’t know‘ if there is a connection between CTE and football. Around this time last year, the former CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said the same thing and was roundly criticized. Ambrosie is being suitably raked over the coals.
But here’s the thing, Ambrosie should know better. He is a former CFL player himself, he was a lineman for the Stampeders, Argonauts, and Edmonton Eskimos (why no one protests this name is beyond me). Ironically, he retired due to injuries. And he should know about the damage done to his own body by the game. I am certainly aware of what football did to my body, between the cranky knees, shoulders, and, of course, the concussions (added to, of course, by hockey, where I played goalie).
More to the point, it looks pretty damn likely that there is a connection between football and CTE. This is just media one story from this past summer (out of many) that reports on a study that found that 88% of brains donated by now-deceased former football players had some form of CTE. CTE was also more prevalent in former professional players, as compared, to, say, high school players.
This is not complete proof positive of the link between football and CTE because CTE can only be diagnosed after death, and so far, studies have concluded nothing more than the commonality of the disease being present in the brains of former football players, as opposed to those who did not play. But this isn’t a direct proof. But, recent research has found that it may be possible to determine the presence of CTE in the brains of the living. This may allow researchers to positively correlate football and CTE.
But, we are not there yet. Nonetheless, Ambrosie’s comments are asinine at best, recklessly dangerous at worst. And, either way, profoundly stupid.
The CFL has done a lot of good to reduce the stress on players’ bodies, from adding a 3rd bye-week during the season to banning full-contact practices. But, it is still the subject of a class-action lawsuit focusing on brain damage (in this light, Ambrosie’s comments make some sense, but the better thing to have done would’ve been to deflect the question).
But Ambrosie’s statements last week threaten to undo that. We should all expect better from the Canadian Football League.
August 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
The opioid crisis that has taken root across North America exposes several ugly truths. The first is racial. The use of drugs is treated differently in the United States, depending on the race of the victims of addiction. When they are African American and/or Latinx, they are criminalized. But when it is white people using drugs, it becomes a crisis. To a degree. The important disclaimer here is class. When poor white people are using, it remains a criminal issue. But when middle- or upper- class white people are using, it becomes a public health issue. Thus, this is the second truth: class.
I think of all the jokes I have heard about ‘white trash’ and meth labs in trailer homes since I moved to the South. But, on the flip side, there is the criminalization and demonization of poor white people, and nearly all African American and Latinx drug addicts. Addiction, I remind, is a public health issue. Addiction is a question of psychology. It is not a matter of criminality.
Addiction is something very real in my world. It is something I grew up with in my family. When I was a university student in Vancouver in the early-to-mid-90s, the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic. Walking through the fringes of the Downtown Eastside one afternoon, I passed the back alley on Carrall St., between East Hastings and East Pender, and saw a young woman, around my age, with a needle in her arm, foaming at the mouth and her fingertips going blue. There was no one around. And she was dying. I went into the alley, she was unresponsive, and her pulse was very faint. There was no one around. No police, no other pedestrians on Carrall St. All the doors in the back alley were closed, some of them barred from the outside. There was no one looking out the windows onto the alley. She was completely alone. And then she died. I don’t know how many people died in Vancouver of heroin overdoses in 1997. But I know she was someone’s daughter, sister, grand-daughter, girlfriend. I did find a police patrol on East Pender about two blocks away, and I told them. I told them everything I saw. I was very shaken, of course. I went home, they went to the back alley to deal with her body.
Vancouver is the site of a long-term heroin crisis. This crisis has been made worse by the addition of fetanyl to nearly every drug on the market on the West Coast. My mother is an addictions counsellor in Vancouver. Every time I talk to her, she says that her recovery centre has lost 2, 3, 4, 5, or more, guys in the past week or however long it has been since I last talked to her. Nonetheless, at least Vancouver has engaged in harm-reduction, which at the very least, makes it safer for heroin addicts, in terms of needle exchanges and safe-places for injection.
Vancouver is home to the only heroin-injection clinic in North America. It has been in operation for eight years now, operates at capacity (130 people, only a fraction of the addicts on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of the city), and is controversial, not surprisingly. In 2013, the then-Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, tried to shut it down, claiming that it enabled addicts. But it survived.
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sea-side town about an hour north of Boston, police there decided to begin treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue in May 2015. Police Chief Leonard Campanello notes, as many others have, that there has been a failure to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country (be it Canada or the US), and that, ultimately, we have lost the war on drugs. Campanello thinks, rather, that it’s a war on addiction.
The important thing to note in both Vancouver and Gloucester is that the police and other agencies there treat addicts as human beings in crisis. And they treat all addicts as such, class and race are not part of the calculus. And Vancouver and Gloucester are just two examples of many across both the United States and Canada where jurisdictions have sought to treat addiction as a public health issue in order to engage in harm reduction.
Last month, in Philadelphia, news broke that the staff at the public library branch on McPherson Square in the Kensington neighbourhood had become first-line responders to heroin overdoses in the park. Several times a day, librarians were rushing out to administer Narcan to people overdosing. Volunteers scoured the park daily for used needles and other paraphernalia of addiction. Librarians referred to the addicts out in the park as ‘drug tourists,’ as Philadelphia, as a port city, has a particularly pure form of heroin on its streets.
But, within a couple of weeks, McPherson Square was nearly devoid of addicts. The police had descended onto the park and pushed them away. Thus, the addicts were back in the shadows, living and shooting up in abandoned homes, in back alleys, hiding in the dark corners of the city. And while some community organizations continued their work of trying to help the addicts, it appears that the police in Philadelphia have not turned to a new model, but, rather, to the old model of scaring off drug addicts, criminalizing them and sending them into the shadows.
I don’t think there is anything new or revelatory in what I’ve said here. Drug addiction is a public health crisis, first and foremost. Harm reduction in locations like Vancouver and Gloucester have made a difference, they have made positive changes in addicts’ lives, including saving lives and getting people off the streets. And harm reduction programmes have got addicts into rehab and off drugs entirely. The criminalization of drug addicts does not have such results.
More to the point, society’s response to drug addiction amongst marginal populations (poor white people) and ethnic and racial minorities (marginalized in their own ways) speaks to how we see some people as disposable. The morality of such a view is beyond my comprehension, it is something I just fundamentally do not understand.