Thursday, November 12, 2009

Racism in the 'Global Village'?

Perhaps it’s fitting that the term ‘global village’ was coined by a Canadian. Canada is the country that’s quintessentially multicultural (we invented that term, too), where people from all over the globe live side-by-side. Its citizens have high levels of pride and support for immigration, and an overall perception of being the most highly regarded country on the planet, affirmed by a 2007 GlobeScan survey. Indeed, Canadians themselves believe that racism is marginal in Canada.

But, there’s more to this picture than meets the eye. According to a recent poll, 75 percent of Canadians think that immigrants have a positive influence on the country. But, data from the Ethnic Diversity Survey 2002 indicates that while most Canadians deny having racist views, they maintain a ‘social distance’ from minorities – they prefer not to interact with members of other racial groups in certain social situations. To be sure, racial boundaries are a reality of Canadian social life, from Chinese Markham and Sikh Surrey to Jewish Westmount and Italian Woodbridge.

It’s strange, however, that while segregation and low employment among immigrants persist, the sentiments of many Canadians about their country and people are tremendously optimistic. Take, for example, the attitudes of Muslims in Canada, a group that has in recent years come to the fore of the public imagination. A recent Environics poll of Muslim attitudes in Canada shows that just 5 percent of Muslims say that most Canadians are hostile. This sentiment is unique among the western democracies. According to data from the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes study, Muslims living in Great Britain, Spain, Germany, and France are much more likely to feel hostility towards members of their faith. Indeed, Canadian Muslims are generally happy with their decision to immigrate to Canada, with about eight in ten saying that Muslims are treated better in Canada than other western countries.

Muslims also believe that Canada is headed in a positive direction and, demonstrating an attachment to Canada, 94 percent describe themselves as proud to be Canadian, almost matching the national average of 93 percent. Importantly, the majority of Muslims in Canada (57 percent) believe that most Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs, and 13 percent believe that Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs in addition to remaining a distinct community. Thus, seven in ten Canadian Muslims believe that their fellow Muslims wish to integrate into the ‘Canadian way of life’, whether remaining a distinct community or not.

Perhaps this positive perception of Canada is reflective of another reality of Canadian life – people here interact with each other. Rather than being isolated, Canadians are closer to each other than ever before. Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui writes: ‘Canadians know each other far more than ever before – sampling each other’s cuisine and culture, especially music; dating and marrying across racial and religious lines; and being actively involved in interfaith activities that have reached unprecedented levels.’

To be sure, the bonds people form with each other are what reduce prejudice and increase understanding. But, strong social cohesion will not come about simply by all citizens sharing a set of values (indeed, in a country as diverse as Canada this would be an impossibility), but, rather, there must be engagement between the diverse communities.

To improve social conditions between diverse communities, American political scientist Robert Putnam recommends official language acquisition, federal support for areas with immigrants, and local civic and religious organizations that reach out to immigrant communities. All this looks like it was a page torn out of Canadian multiculturalism – we’ve been doing it for decades.

Our multiculturalism policy has created tools and institutions to foster interaction between different peoples, as well as an ethos that teaches that we should come to know and work with one another. In this regard, we are a model for the world. To be sure, there is a racial divide in Canada, and the multiculturalism policy needs to address this. But, in the grand scheme, and relative to other countries, multiculturalism in Canada brings people closer together.

In the end, though, it is only through interaction with the other that we will form the necessary social bonds that diminish prejudice. And this plays out in civil society, where we participate together in the daily life of society, through yoga classes, after-school sports clubs, religious associations, what-have-you. It is here where we learn about each other, in the collective attempt to create a society of co-operative and collaborative humans, affirmed and strengthened by our differences. Truly, the global village – where people of all different ethnic, religious, philosophical, sexual identities work and play together – is a place where prejudice has no place.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Inevitability of Immortality (Immortality in sight)

It now seems inevitable that we will live to ages only dreamed of by our ancestors. At least, according to futurist Ray Kurzweil, who says humans could become immortal in less than 20 years’ time through nanotechnology. Certainly, humans have always quested for immortality, but the quest has usually been interpreted as a spiritual yearning to be united forever with the divine. Contemporary scientific advancement, however, seems to have transformed that lofty spiritual goal into something very tangible.

Science has steadily conquered obstacles to prolonging life, and has increased our life expectancy by almost 30 years in the last century. But our longer lives are pockmarked by new psychological and physical maladies that almost invalidate those extra 30 years. The ultimate goal, then, is not to live longer, but to live healthier, which, many argue, new scientific advancements will ensure.

Indeed, new technologies – stem cell research, the melding of man and machine, nanotechnology, et cetera – can improve our mental and physical capacities. Kurzweil argues that technological advancement will accelerate so rapidly that humans will be unable to keep pace, eventually augmenting their bodies with cybernetics, and thereby becoming “transhuman.”

The insistence that disease is unnecessary – that death is a false reality – sustains such arguments, and indeed, has done so throughout time. The conquest of disease and the end of aging are eternal obsessions, exemplified by Alexander the Great’s quest for the Water of Life, King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, and even western literature’s oldest tale, “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Author Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death.” It is not unreasonable to suppose that the quest for immortality is born out of a fearful knowledge of impending death. Indeed, this is suggested in Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film, The Fountain, in which the protagonist overcomes that fear after centuries of questing, eventually dying willingly.

American astrologer Linda Goodman argued that constantly thinking about death makes us “death-conscious,” but, with the strong belief that death isn’t inevitable, we can create within our minds a reality in which we never die. As Queen Sophie-Ann states in HBO’s True Blood, “She’s convinced herself she’s immortal and so she is.”

While the quest for physical immortality is a story of consistent failure, it also reveals a continual truth – that immortality is not a physical prize, but a spiritual one. Indeed, the goal of the spiritual quest is to annihilate the self, so that we may live forever, united in the divine oneness. The quest for immortality on earth is a physical allegory of a spiritual reality.

Our literature and mythologies suggest that immortality is an intrinsic human craving. But, as understood from those stories, that craving is a spiritual quest that simply manifests physically, and when the quest is driven by the physical ego, it is doomed to fail. Obsession tends to destruction. While the obsession with living forever may lead to longer lives, without an acute awareness of life’s purpose and meaning it may also lead to the loss of everything that makes life worth living.

Nevertheless, as science continues to progress, we will continue to live longer. Indeed, as our advancements in medical science illustrate, we as a species have exhibited a desire to live longer and to rid ourselves of external forces that cause disease and death.

Freddie Mercury once asked, hauntingly, “Who wants to live forever?” It seems now that we may not have much choice – forever is only a few years away.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

United in Principle

It is a natural human inclination to look to a higher authority when in peril. It is universal, from the beleaguered sibling seeking the aid of his parent to the Pandavas beseeching the deity Krishna in the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita.

In the contemporary global political system, there is no higher authority than the United Nations, whose explicit reason for existence is to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights and achieving world peace.

A lofty goal. But one that symbolises the heights of human nobility: to better the lives of our fellows through cooperative endeavour.

The existence of the UN is necessary as a model or ideal towards which we can strive. Generally, the idea of multi-state federations is both popular and plausible: we have OPEC and ASEAN, NAFTA and AFTZ, and even a single currency on the European continent. Furthermore, the federated model is recognised as necessary: cooperation ensures survival, as it did in World War II. It lends legitimacy, too; even Bush needed a coalition of the willing to start his Iraq invasion.

To be sure, the Iraq saga was a clear example of the mucky politicization of the UN’s noble goals. Whereas the body initially decried the US’ intent to invade, it was made eventually to come around when Bush proceeded with his plan. A 2005 RAND Corp study found the UN to be successful in two out of three peacekeeping efforts. Nevertheless, many critics have stressed the UN’s uselessness in the face of disappointments such as its failure to implement resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to prevent the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and to prevent genocide or provide assistance in Darfur.

These failures, it is argued, derive from the nature of the UN’s structure, which, due in part to its size, means that its resolutions are more suggestive than prescriptive: it is up to the member-states to follow through on the resolutions. Regardless, the fact remains that we, all humans, cooperated to forge an image of a unified society; the UN is an amazing feat of human cooperation, and we cannot overlook it. That it depends on individual commitments and is sometimes ineffective is representative of human institutions and dispositions, generally. When as individuals we do not have the control or discipline to fulfil our obligations, how can we expect this body to have control over multiple states?

In a way, it never was meant to. It is not meant to be binding. Rather, it represents an ethical ideal towards which we strive, and upon which we agree. It works like the honour system, relying on the hope that we do not succumb to our caprices, that we are not ‘swayed by the whims and gusts of mortal passion’, to paraphrase a former President of the League of Nations, Aga Khan III. But that too is an ideal towards which we aspire and which we hope someday to realise, and our missteps on the journey are expected, and accepted. The fact of our striving, though, is our nobility. It is one of our twin natures as humans to strive perpetually towards goodness, towards the betterment of ourselves and our fellows. This internal obsession is mirrored by the society we created through the institutions of liberal democracy – which seek to ensure the freedom of both body and mind – itself manifested macrocosmically by a global body such as the UN.

It is a symbol of our unity, of our common desire for better things. Imagine a world without this sort of ethical watchdog; we would have multiple entities running roughshod over whomever they could, with no overarching principles ensuring the rights of humans. It is the sort of world conjured by the statements of one-time US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton: ‘There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.’

Vae victis, woe to the conquered.

A central ideal of the UN is to prevent the tyranny of the strong over the weak. It is a liberal ideal that might cannot make right, unlike in the classic example of competing theories of international relations, the Athenian invasion of Melos in the fifth century BCE, validated by the Athenian formula: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. It is precisely this sort of conviction that the UN was created to combat.

As a symbol of good, of responsibility to humankind, the UN is necessary. To be sure, it requires reform (such as the massive programme initiated by Kofi Annan in 2005); but it nevertheless represents the quest towards a society of cooperative and converging civilisations, the sort of world envisioned by its founders in 1941, who wrote: ‘the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security; it is our intention to work together, and with other free peoples, both in war and peace, to this end.’

SHAPEBOOK-ing, the 1st Internet Revolution

‘Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ T.S. Eliot once asked.

It is a question that epitomizes the internet, a whirling landscape of all of humanity’s collective and personal information. Today, this landscape has become categorised and controlled; its mass of information is sorted at every instant and it has become a tool for the management of knowledge. The internet has become a central component of the public sphere, where ideas are debated and society’s norms are shaped. Facebook, being perhaps the most widely used social networking site currently available, has come to play a major role in this debate, as it is where individual humans come in direct contact with each other to share and discuss different information, an exercise that directly influences opinion.

Our opinions are formed by our interactions with the ideas of others: our teachers, our parents, our friends, our heroes, our enemies. When we share our opinions with others, we do so in what the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’, the social arenas and sites where ideas are shared, articulated, and negotiated. The internet is the quintessential public sphere, as it is purely shared information.

Facebook, in a sense, represents the ideal of ‘the public’, as it is a collective of individuals, easily and quickly sharing information that is meaningful to them, without barriers. Here, one is exposed to an exponentially increasing variety of information, being offered quickly by the multitude of one’s contacts, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have different information to offer.

This is where the clamour of the internet becomes clearer, where information becomes knowledge. When we choose from the repository of information that is offered to us, we transform that information into knowledge. And when we share that knowledge with others, we are participating in what is the ultimate goal of the public sphere – to shape public opinion, the social imaginary.

The social imaginary, as articulated by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society. It is the background repository that shapes how citizens envision their shared spaces. The public debate that transpires on the internet, and specifically within the system of Facebook, constantly contributes to our opinions and ideas about the world and its workings.

The sharing of information runs the gamut from humourous cartoons to touching videos to serious articles. Many of us would have never heard of Susan Boyle were it not for Facebook. As well, the death of Michael Jackson was so influential that almost every Facebook status update was a eulogy for him, connecting and creating a shared sense of bereavement. And uncensored information about the bloody aftermath of the recent Iranian election was brought to the fore by the hundreds of people who posted and re-posted articles and videos – such as the disturbing image of the death of Neda – all of which has led some to describe this information-sharing as the first ‘internet revolution’, a testament to Facebook’s real power to inform and inspire.

To be sure, much of the information we receive on our home feeds is personal, or trivial, or even amusing. But this is reflective of the ebb and flow of our daily lives. We are concerned with the goings-on of our friends, we are gladdened by the silly bits of news and humour that they share, we are enriched by the more informative and unusual pieces of information they post, and we are humbled by their accomplishments (of which some of them post too many pictures and videos).

But there is other information that we receive, which, as mentioned earlier, is relevant to issues of social change. We receive information about atrocities in war-torn countries, we engage in debates about marijuana use among public figures, and we learn about how to get involved in animal shelters in our cities. This is civic culture at its most basic – citizens getting involved in issues that change and shape their societies.

It is in this way that the internet and Facebook, specifically, are vehicles for social change because they bring the issues directly to the people, and enable them to participate in the dialogue and, to paraphrase one man, to blog the change they want to see in the world. {w}

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Final Countdown

First Published: 17 January 2006

The public outcry following November's cancellation of Fox's Emmy-winning sitcom Arrested Development was certainly more than muted. Still, unlike the furor of tens of millions of voices that followed the end of Seinfeld, a show about nothing, the passing of Arrested, a show that's really something, seems to have made only critics and the dozens of fanatics irate. Strangely, Fox's move comes at a time when our present protagonist program is the top-rated comedy on, while the aforementioned immaterial show holds the seventh spot.

So why did FOX decide to scrap a program that garnered them six Emmys and has the unabashed admiration of America's top critics? According to some commentators, the show's self-referential humour and its upper-class characters make it difficult for audiences to relate. And the absence of a laugh track has been claimed to alienate viewers who are unable to make the decision to laugh on their own. But, it's precisely the show's quick pace and innumerable in-jokes that make it simultaneously ill-suited for a laugh track as well as brilliant.

The simple reason Fox is dropping the show is that while Arrested captured an average of only five-million viewers this season, another Fox show set in Orange County, The O.C., brought in more than double that amount. Considering that Fox is preeminently advertising-oriented, it is perhaps understandable that the network would desire to dissociate itself from any programming that would endanger its cash flow. But this decision leaves its programming a veritable Aztec tomb of weak plots, romantic melodramas and reality caricatures.

So Fox's motivations are economic, but that still begs the question: Why, if AD is so brilliant, did it fail in the ratings game? Therein lies the rub. According to Alia Shawkat, who plays Maeby F√ľnke, the show is too brilliant. In an interview, she relates an instance in which the show's creator, Mitch Hurwitz, fumed after a meeting during which he was told to make the show "simpler." Indeed, she says, Fox was so sure that their audience would not watch the show that they didn't even advertise it, effectively rendering it dead as a dove. While L.A. is littered with billboards for The O.C. and Prison Break, there are none for Arrested. Even the Fox lot bears no marker of this magic show.

Perhaps Fox is underestimating its audience. But, then again, perhaps it isn't. Considering the popularity of shows with unashamedly unrealistic plot lines, like CSI and sitcoms that thrive on strategically timed laughs and plotlines centred around misunderstood situations, maybe there is little space on network television for a program whose genius is its multi-layered complexity.

What this really speaks of is a society with a generally low level of tolerance for intelligence and a generally high level of physical and intellectual laziness. This malaise is perpetuated by a media that, instead of raising the proverbial bar, stifles room for intellectual growth by pandering to an unthinking couch culture. The upshot here is a society that becomes increasingly satisfied with uninspired thought and rehashed ideas, the result of which is stagnation. By cancelling programming that promotes the movement of neurons, the networks, and indeed, society at large, will find inevitably that they've made a huge mistake.

Obviously, television programming is not the prime mover of society's advancement, but considering the pervasiveness of television culture, its influence cannot be understated. Certainly, the motor of today's world is economics. But without the socially responsible investment in education by all sectors of society, including television networks, we as a society will find quickly that we don't have a banana to stand on.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Pirates of the Academy

First Published: 4 April 2006

The end of the year marks the time to set sail and move to greener pastures. However, for many this time is marred and scarred by exams, papers, and other inconveniences. They will ponder - is the proverbial juice worth the squeeze?

When push comes to shove, many will answer in the negative and, in order to get done what needs to get done, they will consider "piracy," the act of copying someone else's work. Beyond its recent glorification by Natalie Portman on SNL ("When I was in Harvard…I cheated every test"), piracy is a mainstay of our world: In fact, it's "tradition" - the habit of doing what people before us have done.

Piracy is in our blood. From the first, we are taught sternly not to go against the grain or go out on a limb, lest the bough break. We are bred from birth, in the tradition of the gingerbread man, to be cookie-cutter conformists. We are taught to repeat blindly the teachings of Plato or Madonna.

Famously, our papers and exams are not required to display any original thinking. Indeed, it is preferred that submitted work be mundane, repetitive and imitate the ideas in the source material, so that markers will not have a tough time doing their jobs. Well, if it's control they want, give it to them: "CTRL+C" and "CTRL+V."

Let’s beat around this bush for a moment: Today's most popular form of television, "reality TV," is a rip-off of real life. Even our legal system, based on precedents, has us copy what people before us have decided to do. And people who consider themselves different by wearing clothes that are either "funky" or "grungy" are, just like everyone else, copying an already well-established look. Yes, of course, these arguments have been made before, but I'm not ashamed of using them myself.

Stealing isn't wrong; it's a right. Everything we are comes from elsewhere: We don't conceive of our own values, perceptions or notions, but we still call them our own. And why not re-use ideas - that would be environmentally friendly, after all. Let's be honest and call this spade exactly what it is: We are all pirates.

We're all on the same ship, so instead of acting as sour as green apples, let's revel in what we really are. Don't be a closet pirate: celebrate. Wear it on your sleeve; if you don't have one, take someone else's. Let's have a Pirate Pride Parade. Sure, the outfits would look almost exactly like those worn in the gay pride parade, but that sort of imitation only punctuates the core message of Pirate Pride. Montreal may very well be the perfect place for this sort of celebration-in addition to having loads of parade paraphernalia ripe for stealing, Quebeckers sound like pirates, anyway.

In the final analysis, piracy, as the act of imitating others, is not only acceptable; it is the norm. Originality is not considered to be that grand nowadays: For example, being anti-establishment (like the fare of most of my columns) is cool not because it's subversive, but because everybody's doing it. There is safety in copying the ways of our predecessors, says traditional wisdom: After all, if one does not change horses in midstream, then one is not forced to make the choice to sink or swim. So let's not waste time with originality - close your eyes, put on two eye-patches, do what you're told and go seek your treasure.

Speaking of booty - enjoy your summer. Arrrr.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Clubber's Guide to ... Human Rights

First Published: 31 January 2006

Despite the many options available to contemporary music listeners, the popular palette is sated most often by the likes of Eminem’s bizarre invectives or Mariah’s tintinnabular pleadings. Hip-hop’s overwhelming dominance of contemporary popular culture is evinced by the monolithic play-lists of radio conglomerates like Standard Radio, as well as the billion-dollar hip-hop clothing industry, which a Statistics Canada study hails as retail clothing’s champion. It is that intense consumerism, coupled with the tangible egoism of hip-hop entertainers, which typifies modern hip-hop music and its attendant culture.

What sustains such vigorous consumerism, though, is the rigorous pursuit of indulgence. Perhaps the most iniquitous aspect of that pursuit, which exemplifies well the hip-hop industry, is the exploitative objectification of women. Considering that both the producers and consumers of the hip-hop industry deliberately promote and stoke the denigration of women, what is underscored here is a general unpreparedness in society for real social and human equality.

This was not always the case. 50 Cent, along with his characteristic supplications to expensive and excessive jewelry, vehicles, and women, was not always hip-hop’s ambassador. Indeed, that genre, now considered popular, was once a radical social movement that aimed to advance human causes through a lyrical art form that expressed vividly the absence of and need for social justice in impoverished societal ghettos.

Is it possible that recent times have seen the marginalised’s plight sufficiently ameliorated so as to outmode the importance of social messages in contemporary hip-hop? Does the marginalization of the social tirades of Mos Def and Common Sense in favour of the egoistic entreaties of Nelly and Fiddy gesture to a victory for capitalism? Even more perilously, has society become increasingly enchanted with the pursuit of indulgence so as to nourish its expression? Considering modern hip-hop’s pervasiveness, the answer to this most critical question seems to be in the affirmative.

What is perhaps the most damaging consequence of modern hip-hop’s celebration of indulgence is its depiction of women. Typically under-clad and over-sexed, women are paralleled with icons of materialist culture and thus are objectified alongside Maybachs and Pumas. Although many musical forms have displayed misogynistic and exploitative tendencies, such as rock, it is the commercial strength of hip-hop’s contemporary modishness that propels its perceptions of women to the fore. Modern hip-hop’s much-touted hyper-masculinity inspires in the popular consciousness a normative that effectively reduces half the human population to little more than currency.

Just consider the generally accepted practise of nightclub promoters and doormen who openly solicit women as marketing tools by offering them free liquor or admission in order to entice male patrons. (Imagine the uproar if men were treated preferentially!) What such practises expose is the implicit endorsement and active sustenance of blatant violations of equality rights and gender discrimination laws. One recalls here, amidst the indignant assertions of women claiming sexual independence, Wollstonecraft’s championing of women’s rationality versus subjugation justified by the ‘arbitrary power of beauty’, in which women themselves are complicit. Evincing this is Destiny Child’s callipygous panegyric, ‘Bootylicious’.

What all this speaks of is a society willfully excited by indulgence, composed of compliant victims of a consumerist culture supported by a vicious capitalism that thrives on an ethic of individualism. This is illustrated by a popular culture (and a marketing machine) that fosters the irresponsible addiction to a hedonistic consumerism in which women are the most prized commodity. Of what use, then, are civic appeals to common citizenship when the popular consciousness is permeated with a perception that effectively dehumanises half the population? As long as such perceptions persist, the civic dream of human equality will remain a distant Eden.