April 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
Earlier this month, the algorithm developed by Dr. Katie Bouman, who was a Harvard post-doc and is incoming Assistant Professor at California Institute of Technology, helped to verify a supermassive black hole inside a distant galaxy. The photograph of her when this image, the first of a black hole, was processed, went viral.
Bouman acknowledged that the work was the result of a team effort, making it clear that this wasn’t only her accomplishment, on Facebook.
And then the belittling of Dr. Bouman began. On-line trolls, who can’t seem to believe a woman could do this, attacked her. It got so bad that even FoxNews noted this ridiculousness.
But perhaps even worse, the centre and left attempted to celebrate Dr. Bouman’s accomplishment, but did so in a belittling, embarrassing manner. I saw tweets referring to her as ‘a little girl.’ Others commented on her looks. But, perhaps the worst was from Occupy Democrats, a Facebook group. Occupy Democrats were attempting to give Bouman credit, but, oy vey, did it fall short of the mark.
This is a textbook example of how women are belittled. First, she is DR. Katie Bouman. Second, she is a young woman, not a ‘young lady.’ I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the issues with the term ‘lady’ here. She was indeed a grad student three years ago, but she was then a Harvard postdoc and now she is incoming Assistant Professor at Cal Tech. She also did not single-handedly pull this off, something she was very quick to acknowledge, as noted above. Finally, ‘Good job, Katie!’ Come on, man! Good job, Dr. Bouman.
Thankfully, someone has addressed this, fixing up Occupy Democrats’ meme.
But, you see, this is nothing new. I have been teaching at the college and university level now for over two decades. I am married to an academic. I cannot tell you how often I have seen this kind of thing, the belittling of women.
Students oftentime cannot process that their female professors have PhDs, and thus either call them Ms., or, perhaps worse, by their first names (as in ‘Good Job, Katie!’). Course evaluations include comments on the bodies of female professors. But this gets magnified by male colleagues who just watch this happen and stay silent. Studies show that female professors get lower evaluations from students than male colleagues. Male colleagues also belittle their female colleagues, especially successful ones, most notably with patronizing language. I’ve overhead colleagues debate which of their female colleagues they would want to see naked (it goes without saying I’ve heard this and worse about female students).
Ultimately, what the misogynist internet trolls and what Occupy Democrats did is infuriating. And yet, oh so not surprising. We need a better world.
April 13, 2019 § 4 Comments
I was reading a sports column (the link is to The Athletic, which is behind a pay wall) about the soap opera that has been the Green Bay Packers’ offseason. The author, Jay Glazer, was commenting on the drama and relationship breakdown between now former coach Mike McCarthy and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The subtext was that Rodgers is at fault here, but that’s not what struck me. What struck me was Glazer then went on to state that McCarthy has ‘absolutely zero politics to him.’
Quite simply, I call bullshit. It is simply not possible to be a human being and have ‘zero politics’ to them. Politics, at its most base form, is concerned with power and status. We all negotiate power in human relations on a daily basis, we are all members of larger groups which are themselves engaged in power relations with other groups.
And McCarthy, as the long-time coach of the Packers, one of the oldest, most storied franchises in North American professional sports, had to engage in politics on a daily basis. It is impossible that McCarthy had ‘zero politics to him.’ Every single day, he had to negotiate his relationship with Ted Thompson, his general manager; his assistant coaches; his players; the media; Packers’ fans. And in his drama with Rodgers, McCarthy was the boss, the coach of the team. But given Rodgers’ stature, it wasn’t cut and dried.
In short, all relationships are power. All relationships are about status. To declare that someone has ‘zero politics to him’ is flat out stupid. Aristotle was right. Glazer is wrong.
February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon. I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.
Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes. It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.
But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack. It is worth quoting the review at length here:
A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?
First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable. But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones. It is just dressed up in fancier language. The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.
I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.
I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white. Black is generally a racial category in the United States. This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.
On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things. Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists. But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.
January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments
Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being. And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them. And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour. This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.
But now he’s back. And somehow, getting booked for shows. Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre. That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes. That’s part of what makes comedians funny. But this was crossing a line, and he knew it. He had to. He’s a smart guy.
But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’ He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million. And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:
People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.
And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.
And so there we go. Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour. His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now. Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish. He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s). And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.
Fuck that. We deserve better.
March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost 5-3. The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The mood in the city is dour and angry. Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price. He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year. It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela. Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.
Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season. He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin. And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years. Why? Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s. Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust. Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations. Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last. I could go on and on.
Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team. It is a laughing stock.
And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic. During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself. This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs. He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5. This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”
And then all hell broke loose, as it should. When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t. It’s not that deep.” Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military. Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”
Well, maybe I am an idiot. As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about. Not some random war. This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims. The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered. There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”). But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.
And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”
To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity. According to the United States Holocaust Museum,
The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.
The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.
And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis. But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better. The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified. Period. And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not. And he should know better. I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.
October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
October 10, 2017 § 7 Comments
In 2015, then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified appointing women to half of his cabinet posts with ‘It’s 2015.’ And we all applauded. He was elected largely because he wasn’t the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. But he also won based on election promises of gender equality, LGBTQ equality, as well as a ‘new deal’ for the indigenous population.
But here we are two years on, and the plight of the indigenous population of Canada remains the same as it ever was. Trudeau has not exactly lived up to his campaign pledges to re-set the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state. This is not all Trudeau’s fault in the sense that he reflects a deeply racist Canadian society. I have written about this numerous times (here, here, here, and here, for example).
Last week in my Twitter feed, I was gobsmacked to come across this:
This couldn’t be real, could it? It had to be another bit of Twitter and untruths. But, no, it’s real:
Even Global News picked it the story today. So, let’s think about the history presented in this Grade 3 workbook. According to it, the indigenous population of Canada agreed to simply pick up stakes and move to allow nice European colonists to settle the land. Nevermind the centuries of occupation, and all of those things. Nope, the very nice Indians agreed to move.
I wish I could say I was shocked by this. I’m not. This is pretty much part and parcel of how Euro-Canadian culture thinks about the indigenous population, if it thinks about the indigenous population at all. Or, when Euro-Canadians think about the indigenous population, it’s in entirely negative ways; I don’t think I need to get into the stereotypes here.
I tried to do some research on this workbook and the company that published it, Popular Book Company. My web sleuthing turned up next to nothing. If I Google the book itself, all I get are links to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Indigo.ca (Indigo is Canada’s largest bookseller). Finally, I discovered that this series is popular amongst homeschoolers in Canada, and, as of 2015, over 2 million copies were in circulation. My attempts to find anything out about Popular Book Company came to nothing; all I could find out is that it’s a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, PopularWorld.
I suppose the actual damage done by this outright stupidity is limited. Nonetheless, it exists. But how this stupidity occurred is another thing. From what I learned on the interwebs, this edition of the Grade 3 curriculum was published in 2015, the previous edition in 2007. I can’t tell if this stupidity was in the 2007 version, but it is certainly in the 2015 edition.
I have experience working in textbook publication. I have written copy for textbooks, I have edited textbook copy. And I have reviewed textbooks before publication. And this is for textbooks at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. To get to publication, textbooks go through rounds of edits and expert review. My guess is this didn’t happen here. I have also worked with provincial boards in Canada to revise curriculum, including textbooks. Deep thought and careful consideration goes into this process. And I have friends who work with homeschoolers, at least in Québec, to ensure that the textbooks and curriculum homeschoolers use and follow is appropriate. And they take their job seriously.
So how did this happen? Who wrote this stupidity? Who allowed it to go to publication? And why did it take two years for anything to happen? Initially, Popular said it would revise future editions of the workbook. Eventually, however, it agreed to recall already extant versions and make sure that this is edited when the book is re-printed.
Great. But how did this happen in the first place?
October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment
We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS. Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies. And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies. I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.
The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious. But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.
As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth. But it’s not just ESPN. Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports. It is also 20% owned by ESPN). A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states, that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”
Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings. Why? Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN. The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour. TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.
And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story. Sure they are. But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words. They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’
This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell. But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around. Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it). But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts. Players do.
Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language. Good for you. You’re wrong.
Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes. Ever heard someone speak 18th century English? Or how about the word ‘awful’? Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’ Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’ And awful means something that sucks. But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).
The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely. So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded. It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness. And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.
August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black. Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism. I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March. In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY. In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.
It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour. Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour. (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science). But. Racism persists. Racism is all around us. And Oluo reminds us of this.
And so back to Oluo. She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state. As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices. She posted on Twitter:
And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in. In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism. Or read the article I linked to above.
But, back to the Facebook post of my friend. The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’ I pointed out that she isn’t racist. She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel. But this isn’t racist. Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.
See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.). Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another. And this is coupled with power. This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.
For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black. Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital). The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.
That is racism. The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist. Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced. They can also be stupid and tone deaf.
But racism is rare. Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet. She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.
But the responses to her? Well, they kind of prove her point. The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale. That is what racism looks like. And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).