Eating Meat

Yesterday, more than 150 million animals were slaughtered for human consumption. The same number will die today. This is a worldwide number, and it doesn’t include marine life.

It’s a veritable animal Holocaust, happening everyday, out of sight, out of mind. And I use the H-word advisably here, not in any original way. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning author who in 1935 fled the growing Nazi threat in Warsaw for New York, referred to our daily massacre of animals as “an eternal Treblinka.”

It arises from something called speciesism, the notion that humankind enjoys a set of rights which all other living species do not. It’s applied unevenly of course, without any real logic. We kill and eat cows, chickens and pigs, but protect cats, dogs, horses and… great apes, that is select wild animals. Lest you immediately think the concept is truly wacko, I would remind you that, only 50 years ago, a large number of people believed that all members of another race enjoyed considerably fewer rights than did we white folks. If we track back 200 years we find that nearly everyone in the West believed this.

Back to great apes for a moment, as we consider the wacko-ness of speciesism. Are you entirely comfortable with the idea that we capture and imprison a mountain gorilla for our edification and viewing enjoyment? Me neither. The next question would be, why not? (Sure, zookeepers argue protection of an endangered species, but if that was the only reason we would put all our resources into protecting gorillas in place.)

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Back in 2006, Dr. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas published a book called The China Study, rightly subtitling it “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted.” Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, and The China Study was conducted through that University, Oxford, and The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The gist of the massive study’s findings might be summarized as diets with higher meat and dairy consumption correlate directly and significantly with higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called ‘diseases of affluence.’ Likewise with obesity, same sort of correlation.

The typical Chinese diet contains less fat, less protein, more fiber and iron, and much less animal foods than does the typical American diet. And the incidence of the most common killers in North America is far lower. Interestingly, the average Chinese citizen actually consumes more calories than does the average American, indicating that it’s not how much you eat, but what, plus how active you are.

What’s more, Dr. Campbell and his cohorts discovered that, if you were already afflicted with the diseases of affluence, a plant-based diet is in fact effective treatment of those diseases.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more of this study, you might want to read Dr. Campbell’s chapters on “Why Haven’t You Heard This Before?” The experience he describes directly parallels the too-long successful campaign by the fossil fuels industry to obfuscate the climate change debate—essentially the meat, dairy and egg industries pay for research which contradicts The China Study, succeeding not in refuting the evidence presented, but in simply ‘muddying the waters,’ causing you to think there is no conclusive case to be made, either way.

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The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald's
The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald’s

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the devastating ecological effects of the livestock and fishing industries worldwide, and how the big environmental organizations like Greenpeace, in their own selfish interests, avoid criticizing these industries. With the possible exception of our global abuse of fresh water resources, no single factor contributes as much to our environmental peril as do the farmed animal industries. You likely have only to think about habitat loss, factory cattle and hog farms, and the water-born runoff of pollutants to grasp the enormity of the destructive impact, including the industry’s contribution to climate change.

There is really no doubt about it, whether you come at it from a moral, health or environmental perspective, there is no good reason for our continued consumption of animal-based foods. There is, of course and however, one overriding explanation as to why we continue to eat meat: habit.

London 1897

1897 was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year; she had been reigning over her Queendom for 50 years, keeping Edward, her eldest son and thus heir, sidelined until he was by then in his late 50s. The current British monarch has of course done the same thing for even longer to her eldest son Charles, who is now 67.

Traffic outside the Bank of England, London, 1897
Traffic outside the Bank of England, London, 1897

Economic inequality was pervasive, glaring and much resented in Victoria’s England, fed by proceeds from the largest empire the world has ever known. (It occupied nearly a quarter of the earth’s total land mass.) Accurate data is hard to come by, but here’s how George Bernard Shaw came to describe the situation:

“It is in this phase of capitalistic development, attained in Great Britain in the 19th century, that Socialism arises as a revolt against a distribution of wealth that has lost all its moral plausibility. The inequalities [have] become monstrous.”

Such conditions gave rise to not only socialism (think Bernie Sanders), but communism, and Scotland Yard security forces kept a vigilant eye upon London’s Communist Working Men’s club, where various firebrands regularly called for overthrow of the existing government. Even more worrisome was the Epicerie Francaise, where international anarchists met and called for radical action of all sorts. French security forces had opened a Special Branch in London just to monitor the Epicerie.

In April of that year, a bomb exploded in the London underground, killing one and injuring more. The perpetrator was never identified, but most people blamed ‘foreigners,’ probably Italians. ‘Immigrants,’ we might call them today, probably Muslims.

In May, Guglielmo Marconi (a rich, well-connected Italian) sent the first ever wireless telecommunication over open sea when he transmitted, “Are you ready?” from the coast of Wales to Flat Holm Island, a distance of 6 kilometres. Unlike his scientific counterparts who favored the free exchange of knowledge (open source?), Marconi was the prototype of today’s successful start-up entrepreneur, brilliant, hardworking, but ever concerned that his competitors (and there were numerous) would steal his technology and exploit it commercially before he was able to.

Telegraphy was an established industry by this time, having been first introduced commercially in 1837. It had sped up the exchange of information unimaginably, from the top speed of a human or animal to virtually immediate, over vast distances. In freeing information from the movement of any physical object, telegraphy had revolutionized the global economy, as well as the media, that is journalism. Critics, however, complained that the telegram had resulted in the standardization of language, stripping it of its regional distinction and flair.

Marconi’s new wireless technology was disruptive and often begrudged. When he later succeeded in transmitting a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, he promised that he would undercut the cost of sending a telegram via ocean-bottom cable by 60%.

In the heyday of its popularity as a medium, the average telegram was about 12 words, or about 60 characters.

Electric cars made their first appearance in August of 1897, as London taxis. They disappeared from the roads two year later. Their biggest flaw was likely the excessive weight of their batteries.

Meanwhile, over in America, September saw the Sheriff and his men from Lucerne County, Pennsylvania fatally gun down 19 striking mineworkers, while injuring many others. The murdered men were immigrants, all were unarmed and all had been shot in the back; several had suffered multiple wounds. Protests ensued, sometimes violent, and the Sheriff and his deputies were eventually arrested, only to be later acquitted.

The French expression, ‘Plus ça change…’ is an abbreviated version of a maxim usually translated to English as, ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same.’ Indeed, some things change, (especially technology; the fastest motorcar in London in 1897 topped out at about 35 miles per hour), and some things don’t. One website defines the expression as the “resigned acknowledgment of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.” Touché.

So there it is for you. A little historical perspective on today’s turbulent times. Never a bad thing.

Getting On

Growing older is, thank god, a gradual progression. Relentless, to be sure, but mercifully incremental.

Kris Krug photo
Kris Krug photo

For me, physically at least, it began with the eyes. As a young man, prior to taking up a solitary station on an Alberta Forest Service firetower in the mountains north of Jasper, I’d had my eyes checked. A Forest Service fellow stood in a long hallway outside his office with a geometrically divided black and white disc in his hands and asked me to stand at a distance. He would spin the disc, and I was to tell him where the white dot in one of the black quadrants of the disc showed up each time he did so. Upon the first spin, the dot was easily discernible to me, so he asked me to back away further, down the hallway, and he re-spun the disc. Still easily seen. To abbreviate this petty tale, I soon backed to the far end of the hallway, still able to see the dot, and he waved off the procedure, telling me I had considerably better than 20/20 vision. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible.

So it came as a bit of shock to me when, at age 40, I found myself unable to focus on a written page at arm’s length. This particular event in the gradual process had happened rather precipitously, within weeks it seemed, sending me forthwith over to the local drug store in search of ‘readers.’ I didn’t know whether to feel greater ignominy or anger.

It’s been a steady downhill grade ever since. I mean it just won’t leave me alone. Every time I think I’ve adjusted to the latest decline, settled into a new regime of reduced ability, here comes another. You used to be able to ride that bike for four hours, wield that chainsaw for half that time, with no untoward effect? Not anymore jacko. And just wait until next week when you won’t be able to stand up smoothly if you happen to have sat for more than twenty minutes.

This is the relentless part. There’s no saying, ‘Get used to it,’ because soon enough it’ll be worse.

No, the aging process is not a welcome one, nor is it painless. It’s replete with minor aches and pains piling up like debris in a windstorm, right there at your doorstep.  And unless you’ve let yourself deteriorate into a truly deplorable state of overweight and unfit (where you have the opportunity to temporarily improve), it will never, ever get better. It’s a one-way street, and we all know precisely where it leads.

What’s to be done about this wretched deterioration? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? There is exactly nothing to be done. Sure, you can eat well, get some exercise, stay busy, but don’t kid yourself, the downward spiral will not end. It will rarely pause.

So we are to accept. Accept the inevitability of aging, with all its vile consequences. We must grow old gracefully. It sounds good, the right path and all, but personally, I’m not quite so ready to accede. I live in a culture which, unlike many others (Native American culture, for instance), doesn’t much revere its elder population. Mainstream Canadian society tends to smile benignly on its older folks, then quietly shuttle them off to a rail yard where the cars sit mostly idle, while newer, more ‘advanced’ models hurtle by, the priority now. I know I am far more capable of creating a successful (in every sense) movie now than I was in my thirties. (This is largely because of the greater skill and knowledge I’ve gained over time, this in turn largely the result of the many mistakes I’ve made over time.) But I also know that I am far less likely to get that chance than I was in my thirties.

This is the way it is, and I am not about to change it. Neither is anyone else I know. But again, I am not ready to assent. I’m with Dylan (Thomas, not Bob); I do not plan on going gently. Expect complaint. Expect rueful, often humorous (I hope), but noisy grievance. As far as I’m concerned, there is no other way. It’s a key part of staying alive.

Death As A Process

We are all hurtling toward oblivion. And none of us want to talk about it, much less think about it.

Alex Proimos photo
Alex Proimos photo

The real problem, however, is that, although we are all careening toward our own personal extinction, modern medicine is doing a bang up job of forestalling the moment. Average life expectancy back in classical Greece was under 30 years; life expectancy in many countries today is over 80. Globally, over the last 200 years, life expectancy has essentially doubled, and the trend continues. A recent Lancet study tells us that life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years in just the past two decades. It is said that the first person who will live to age 200 has now been born!

‘What’s the problem?’ you may ask. Longer life = a good thing. No?

Well, no and yes. A healthy, meaningful life, free of pain, sure. But, as many of us have seen, the final years, under a miraculous contemporary medical regime, can be contrary to all three of those descriptors.

We used to, more often than not, die at home. Not anymore, although almost all of us will say that we’d prefer to. And again, the trend continues; one study says that in the U.K., by 2030 fewer than one in ten will die at home (and that includes a ‘nursing home’). When the end comes, we are very likely to be within the walls of a cool, clinical institution.

But again, I don’t think that’s the worst of it. We used to die far more precipitously. We got old, we got sick, we died, like dropping off the earthly plane. Now, as stipulated in Being Mortal, Atul Gawande‘s excellent book on this untidy business, the pattern of our death is typically a prolonged series of much shorter drop-offs. We develop heart disease, there are effective drugs for that. Our legs go; here’s an electric wheelchair that can spin around inside an elevator. Cancer crops up, begin chemotherapy. Today’s medical model is an interventionist one; if the problem can be addressed it will be, or at least it should be. And so our lives are repeatedly extended, and each time, the quality is not quite what it was.

What’s more, the final expiry itself is no longer definitive. Our demarcation of death used to be based upon the heart and lungs stopping their involuntary movement. Then, back in the late 60s, given the interventionist aplomb of doctors, we switched to ‘brain dead.’ But now, even that definition isn’t working for us. In a recent National Geographic article, brain death is broken down into five separate stages. (The first is short-term memory loss, and if that’s true, I’m dying as I write this.)

Just above, I used the word “moment” in referring to death, but hang on. As quoted in the same article, Sam Parnia, in his book Erasing Death, refutes that notion explicitly: death is “a process, not a moment.” And doctors can now resuscitate our dying selves well along into that process, up to 30 minutes in with adults, much longer for children, long after we would have been ‘left for dead,’ just a few decades ago.

It’s all very disorderly and difficult, and something we all need to think about, vis a vis our own short lives. As my mother said several times in referring to particularly decrepit friends, “We can live too long.” And yet, as a friend of my own once said, with unsettling accuracy, “We cling to life.” (Well, not my mother. She wasn’t in pain, but, dying of cancer, she asked for, and would have taken, if it had been provided for her, a “euthanasia pill.”)

And a final point here. It is often the family members of the dying, not the dying themselves, who prompt the intervention. We cling not only to life, but to our connection to the dying. And if one thing is clear to me in all this messiness, it’s that the decision to intervene should rest with the dying, not the interventionists, whoever they may be.

Ask your aging loved ones what they want, what they fear, when the end comes. Make sure that you have a ‘Living Will’ in place, that a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ sign will be hung on the end of the hospital bed where you will likely expire, if that is your desire. Make your wishes known to your family members before you’re incapacitated, and the decision has to go to them.

If nothing else, go out on your own terms.



Global Culture

Cultural industry. It sounds like an oxymoron. ‘Culture’ relating to the artistic or creative, and ‘industry’ describing business interests, on a large scale. At the very least, it seems a rocky marriage.

The term is most often applied to the electronic arts, as they are called: music and motion pictures, the artforms which lend themselves to mass duplication and distribution. No one talks about the dance industry, or the sculpture industry.

The cultural industry I’m most familiar with is the motion picture one, and indeed, someone once referred to the movie industry as ‘too much of a business to be an art, and too much of an art to be a business.’ That just about encapsulates the conundrum.

In Canada, unlike the U.S., the movie and television industries have always needed public subsidy. The costs of production are simply too high, and the Canadian marketplace too small, for the indigenous production companies to survive. That’s been the argument at least.

I can recall, back in the mid-80s, when the Canadian Film Development Corporation, originally founded in 1967 to advance the Canadian movie biz, became Telefilm Canada, charged with promoting and funding the Canadian ‘audiovisual’ private sector, that is television as well as movies. People from the agency were talking about how it was intended to grow production companies from the nascent stage, but then to gradually withdraw its funding as those companies matured and became financially independent.

In the 90s, Telefilm still explicitly required funded productions to be ‘distinctly Canadian.’ These shows were to be stories told by Canadians, set in perceptibly Canadian locales, in which Canadian audiences could recognize themselves. So too were so-called ‘lifestyle’ and ‘industrial’ shows excluded from support; game shows, talk shows, that sort of thing.

downloadAs we rolled into the new millennium, TV shows like Flashpoint, Orphan Black and Rookie Blue made little effort to clarify where their episodes were shot (Toronto), although Rookie Blue did, in its latter seasons, begin to actually use Toronto street names. Rookie Blue also, in its final season last year, received over five million dollars in subsidy from the Canada Media Fund, a public-private partnership administered by Telefilm. That in addition to the considerable monies the production company would also have received via both provincial and federal tax credits. The parent company for Rookie Blue is E1, a multimedia corporation, headquartered in Toronto, with revenues in 2015 of more than $1.5 billion Cdn. You’d have to consider that mature.

And today, when Paperny Entertainment, a Vancouver-based production company owned by E1, produces World’s Weirdest Restaurants for the Food Network, surely a ‘lifestyle’ distributor, that show can access all the same government subsidies that can any other TV show.

At the same time, I don’t mean to sound alarmist bells here. The situation I’m describing is not unique to Canada. It was probably naive to think, back in the 80s, that production companies could be weaned from the public funds which did so much to create the business model by which they grew and prospered. And god knows governments everywhere are competing (some say in a race to the bottom) to offer ever more generous tax credits to attract the industry, given that it pays well, is labour intensive, and relatively non-polluting.

Governments everywhere have also fought to exclude cultural industries from the various free trade-type agreements that continue to proliferate in our times. Ultimately though, the problem is beyond national controls, subject to the same global economic and technical forces which are inexorably interconnecting the planet. As, Catalina Briceño, Director of Industry and Market Trends at the Canada Media Fund, wrote in a new report, “[the] globalization of tastes is supplanting cultural differences.”

It’s no surprise then that, especially with dramatic movies and television shows, creators and producers design them to play like home product in several markets. Rookie Blue aired on Global in Canada and ABC in the U.S. Orphan Black premiered on Space in Canada and on BBC America in the United States.

John Fawcett, one of the creators of Orphan Black, certainly did his best to put a positive spin on the situation in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2014: “To be honest, we don’t want to say we’re American and alienate the Canadians, or say we’re Canadian and alienate the Americans. The bottom line is we’re one big happy family. We’re just a little bit further north than you.”

Nice. As culture and industry evolve globally, their marriage begets family. I can get behind that. The family part at least. Happy? Maybe not quite so much.

The Sacred Cow

It begins with this startling fact: the livestock industry (meat and dairy) is responsible for the release of more greenhouse gases than is the entire transport industry combined (cars, trucks, trains and airplanes). According to a 2013 UN report, greenhouse gas emissions originating with the raising of cows, pigs and chickens constitute about 14% of the world’s total; the collective emissions from motor vehicles of all kinds are 13%. Not a vast difference you might think, though, like me, you may well be surprised by this truth, but here’s an even more disturbing fact:

None of the big environmental activist organizations—not Greenpeace, not the Sierra Club, not the Rainforest Action Network, none of them—want to talk about it.

Why? Well, sadly, it comes back to that truism that applies to corporations; these environmental organizations are just that, organizations, not-for-profit ones, but organizations just the same, and just like Shell and GE and H&M and all the other for-profit companies that the environmental groups like to condemn, they are first of all concerned about their own bottom line. To attack the livestock industry would be to damage the inflow of their donations, their membership fees.

p10935874_p_v8_aaThis is all pretty much nailed by the feature documentary Cowspiracy, by the way. A new version of the show is currently available on Netflix.

The harmful impact of the livestock industry is multifaceted of course. Not only do cows fart prodigious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more destructive than carbon dioxide, the industry is also the leading cause of species extinction, largely through habitat destruction, and water pollution. What’s more, animal agriculture is currently consuming water at an absolutely unsustainable rate. The growing of feed crops for livestock alone accounts for more than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. And water, in the coming days, is going to be increasingly scarce in many populated areas, courtesy of climate change.

I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when I was producing a documentary about a group of men with severe spinal cord injuries trying to leave the institution they lived in, trying to establish an independent group home. This was during the time that Rick Hansen was travelling the globe by wheelchair, raising awareness everywhere of the rights and prospects for those with spinal cord injuries. I naively supposed that Rick Hansen’s organization would be encouraging of our efforts; after all we were supporting the same cause, but no, I was surprised to learn that individuals within that organization (not the man himself) were badmouthing us and our project. And then it occurred to me—the Rick Hansen organization’s prime cause was the Rick Hansen organization, not spinal cord injury sufferers per se.

It’s a distressing reality. All organizations seek first of all to augment themselves, and individuals within any organization seek above all to further their own careers, to add to their own bank accounts.

But the larger issue here is indeed the unsettling certainty that, in future, we all should eat less meat and dairy, a lot less meat and dairy. And the large environmental organizations are right; few of us want to hear that. We enjoy eating meat and fish and eggs and cheese, and, more fundamentally, we don’t appreciate anyone, organization or individual, telling us we shouldn’t. Guilting us. It’s a lifestyle change that isn’t easily managed, but like any habit, it’s one that is most easily changed incrementally. Think of it this way: ‘meatless Monday’ eventually needs to become ‘meat Monday,’ the one day of the week when you eat meat guilt-free, but for now maybe it can be meatless weekdays, or maybe meatless days beginning with S or T.

Whatever. It’s a discomforting secret that we all need to wake up to. If we are to collectively escape the worst effects of climate change, as Michael Pollan has so rightly recommended, we need to eat “mostly plants.” And it seems that, for the foreseeable future, we are all going to have to do so without the help of the very organizations who claim to be most concerned about climate change.


Invasive Schminvasive

A couple of years ago I noticed a new plant growing on our island property, up near an old woodpile. It was sprouting so vigorously into a small heap of green, corrugated leaves that it immediately caught my attention, and I began watching its growth with interest, wondering what it would become.

It became a multi-stemmed plant about chest high, with a cluster of little yellow flowers atop, similar to yarrow. I’ve since tried to properly identify the plant, but thus far with no success.

My point being that I had never seen this plant before that day, in some 20 years of messing about on our wooded acreage. And it has since sprung up all around.

As it appears now. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo
As it appears now.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo

And it’s not alone in this sort of botanical victory. When we first bought the property there were no daisies growing anywhere. I’d see them growing by the side of the road in other areas on the island and think, a little wistfully, that they might look quite nice in the meadow above our home.

Those daisies now grow in all the open spaces near us. When I mow I leave some of them standing in white, fountain-like sprays.

Ranging further afield, as a young man I don’t recall seeing great blue herons mincing about the beaches of Vancouver, as they do now, while nesting noisily in considerable numbers in Stanley Park. As a child I don’t recall seeing red foxes within the bounds of Grande Prairie, or wild rabbits within Edmonton’s limits, as I do now when I visit those cities.

My greater point being that, in just my adult life, I’ve seen that Nature is a fluid system. Certain species come and go. (Blue birds seem to have disappeared from Alberta.) Especially it seems, certain species have learned to adapt to the urban landscape.

So when folks get worked about so-called ‘invasive species,’ I tend to get a little skeptical. A few years back purple loosestrife was the invasive danger of the day, said to be poised to assault and entirely conquer all the wetlands of Canada. Japanese knotweed seems like it may be the current favourite among those who get agitated about Nature’s changing patterns. On Galiano, some residents have actually proposed campaigns to eradicate Scotch broom, an introduced species that has infested the Garry oak meadows so characteristic of the southern Gulf Islands. But as anyone who has ever witnessed the power of that particular plant to spread and prosper could tell you, such a campaign is hubris of an extraordinary dimension.

But such hubris is precisely what characterizes us as a species. We have hugely altered the planet’s surface; astonishingly, the Geological Society of America estimates that we have now modified more than 50% of the Earth’s land surface. And as we all know, the two words most often mentioned when ascribing causes to the elimination of animal species on our planet are ‘habitat loss.’ And guess who is responsible.

We alter the landscape because we can. We seem to possess an irresistible urge to change, adjust and otherwise ‘improve’ the environment that exists immediately around us. Certainly I am among the guilty. Our bit of rural paradise has been revised by me in any number of ways in the time we have ruled over it; trees have been felled, gardens planted, even a creek dammed. Sometimes this had been done for practical purposes, storing water or providing heat, but, as often as not, it has been done for what can only realistically be described as ‘aesthetic’ reasons. We humans feel safer in open, controlled spaces, even when no real dangers exist.

Red foxes have moved into cities because of the food supply they find there. Rabbits find that the cities support fewer of the predators they fear, although coyotes may have more to say about that in future. The daisies first appeared on our property after a trench was dug for the water line which runs from the well to our home. And this is how it is with the great majority of the species which so concern us. They almost always arrive with the disturbances that we humans bring.

No, the truth is that, when it comes to invasive species, we have some nerve to even mention the supposed problem. The only true invasive species is us.

Closing the Digital Lid

I began teaching a new course last week, as so many other teachers everywhere did, and, as is my wont, I asked my students for ‘lids down’ on the laptops which inevitably appear on their desks as they first arrive and sit down. The rationale of course is that their computers are open in order for them to “take notes,” but we can all be rightly skeptical of that practice. The online distractions are simply too many and varied for that to be consistently true, given the perfect visual block that the flipped-up lids present to we instructors stranded on the back side of that web portal.

It’s interesting to note that recent research indicates that students who take notes longhand, as compared to on their laptops, fare better in recalling the substance of the course material than do their keyboarding counterparts. And the longhanders score better not only in factual recall; conceptually they also respond more accurately and substantively to after-class questions, avoiding what the researchers refer to as the keyboarders’ “shallower processing.”

It’s a contentious issue among educators of course. Some suggest that we instructors should ‘embrace’ the digital realm in our classrooms, allowing students to tweet as we speak, ask questions anonymously, fact check, all that. A richer, more vibrant educational environment is the result, say these internet enthusiasts.

It depends upon class size, and certainly I wouldn’t object to laptops or handhelds open and operating during any kind of educational ‘field trip,’ but I came to the lids down position long before I heard about the recent research I’ve just mentioned, and I did so out of what may be seen as an old-school notion: common courtesy.

My classes are small—as writing classes they need to be—and I am always looking for what I refer to as ‘engagement in the process.’ Regardless of the quality of the writing produced, I’m looking for students to listen carefully at all times, to me as well as to their fellow students, to think, process, and respond with ideas that may or may not be helpful to the group process. That just isn’t happening, or at least not as well as it could be happening, if students are in two places at once. Except of course they are not two places at once; their attention is simply bouncing rapidly back and forth between those two places. What we describe as multitasking.

In that sense I’m looking for more than just common courtesy, but respectful attention is nevertheless at the heart of what I’m asking for in a classroom. Anything less is simply rude.

We’re all familiar with moments like this:


babycakes romero photo
babycakes romero photo

Where the so-called ‘digital divide’ has nothing to do with separate generations or genders; it’s the sad loss of a potential conversation, and I very much consider my classroom process a group conversation.

Or how about this image, taken from the CNN election night coverage:

CNN laptops

This is more precisely what I’m on about. These folks are gathered as pundits to discuss and enlighten the audience on the events of the evening, and clearly, as part of that endeavor, they can be expected to listen to one another, with their varied insights and political leanings, and we in the audience can be expected to profit by that exchange. But, with lids up, we may be sure that each pundit is periodically checking the screen while their fellow analyst is speaking. Why? I’m assuming it’s because they wish to check in on the very latest election data as it flows in. But this is CNN headquarters, where the data flowing all around them couldn’t be more up-to-the minute!

If you’re going to engage in a conversation with someone, group or otherwise, then do that, engage: listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Not with just your own talking points, but with a reasoned response to what has just been said by your conversational partner.

Online addiction continues to engulf us. My own personal survey indicates that more than half of those of us walking outside are either staring into the virtual void or at least carrying the tool which connects us to that space. At a bus stop or in the subway car the great majority of us are guilty. And so it becomes increasingly difficult for us to unplug when we find ourselves a member of a group meant to communicate face to face.

When it comes to conversation and common courtesy, I guess it’s like what an old professor once said to me about common sense: ‘Not so common.’


I am in awe of an immigrant. This is someone who has severed ties, forever, with everyone who has ever supported them, and with everything that has served to define them. Friends, family, home, country, culture, familiarity in general; all that and more the immigrant has chosen to leave behind, with no intention of ever returning to stay.

Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my own middle-class background in one of the most peaceful and privileged countries on earth, but I can’t imagine making that choice. It seems an incomprehensibly difficult transition to complete, lonely, deeply unsettling, arduous in every practical way. And more than anything, for me, I can’t imagine permanently breaking the family tie, the ancestral line which, however inconsequential or little known, has brought me to where I was born and raised. Every immigrant must know, in their hearts, that their children will grow up to be fundamentally different from all the family members who have preceded them, that they will never enjoy the blood bonds that they would have had they lived in their country of origin. To immigrate is to accept that you must begin a whole new family history.

I have a friend who, in emigrating, gave up a career as a librarian to become a janitor. I once worked in a restaurant with a man who had been a lawyer in his home country, and who was now host at that restaurant, seating the customers. I know of couples who have not been able to manage the change together, where one or other of the two couldn’t make the leap, and so returned home, ending the marriage. And of course we all know of the people who literally risk their lives for a chance to emigrate. (To me, these people are by definition not immigrants, nor ‘economic migrants,’ but refugees.)

Sue Waters photo
Sue Waters photo

Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 These words are of course the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and they could hardly be more ironic at a time when Donald Trump leads the polls among Republicans running for President, while proposing that a wall be built along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The very idea that we can draw an imaginary line along some part of the earth, then say, ‘The land on this side is ours; you are not allowed to enter or stay,’ is basically bizarre. Sure, we collectively agree to a set of laws which lends force to this prohibition, but morally, can it be justified? If so, why? Because we got there first, then organized to keep others out? Seems pretty thin justification to me.

Years ago, I watched a short film by madcap artist Byron Black (sadly it doesn’t seem to exist online), in which Byron furtively approaches a small concrete pylon marking the Canada-U.S. border as it crosses Point Roberts, the western-most peninsula descending from Canada across the 49th parallel, making ‘The Point’ a tiny but separate part of the American empire. Byron steps carefully over the pylon, then waits apprehensively for the wrath of god and government to descend upon him. It doesn’t; no bolt of lightning, no megaphone voice telling him to lie face down on the ground, nothing. It goes on, but suffice it for me to say that the piece ends with Byron gleefully hopping back and forth across the border, maniacally celebrating his ability to flaunt the power of big government. For my money, the film surgically and hilariously impales the notion of ‘border.’

Recently, Gboko John Stewart, a young man from Liberia, applied for and was granted admission to Quest University in Squamish, BC. Initially the Canadian government denied him a visa for entry because of the Ebola outbreak in his home country. Reasonable enough, you might say. An international quarantine was in effect against this virulent disease. But once Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in May of 2015, Mr. Stewart applied again for a visa. And again he was refused; this time because some nameless bureaucrat was not satisfied that he would leave Canada at the conclusion of his time at Quest.

I have never met Mr. Stewart; know little about him. He works as a freelance journalist and radio host in Monrovia, and, from his writings, it’s clear he is skilled in the English language. He’s also an activist, deeply involved in an organization called HeForShe, which calls for men to support the equality of women. Mr. Stewart presumably never expressed an interest in staying in Canada permanently, but regardless, and despite my limited knowledge of him, I have to think he should be exactly the sort of person my country might be prepared to admit, temporarily or otherwise.

And, once again, I find myself struggling to understand the helplessness and frustration he must feel at the anonymous, arbitrary power that denies him a chance at his educational dreams.

When it comes to immigration, tragically, none of it seems to make any sense.



Pete Muller photo
Pete Muller photo

This photograph was published in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was taken in a village in southern Guinea, during the recent Ebola outbreak which had its epicentre in that part of Africa.

The young girl sitting on the blanket looks distinctly uneasy. Before her, the caption tells us, a traditional “healer” is preparing to exorcise the “malign spirits” which may have caused the girl to contract the Ebola virus. We see the healer’s face encrusted in white; a bit of green vegetation is wrapped around one wrist; he carries a kind of sceptre, a decorated stick.

What’s most remarkable about the photo is to be seen in the background, among the small group of villagers who have gathered to watch the exorcism—two young men hold up their phones, videoing the process.

The elements of the discrepancy seem almost too much to set side by side, and yet, there they are. A rankly superstitious practice which tracks right back to a mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls (i.e. before Christianity), smack up against the latest in 21st century communications technology. How is this possible?

The fact is today’s world is rife with such discrepancies; it’s only that they’re usually further removed from one another. In whole villages in rural Afghanistan not one person may be able to read and write. In the city of Helsinki, with a population of almost one and a half million, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 15 who cannot read and write. (The literacy rate In Afghanistan is 28%, among females less than 13%; in Finland the rate is 100%.)

Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul, has a net worth of more than $77 billion U.S. The average hotel receptionist in Mexico brings home $4260 U.S. in pay over the course of one year.

In California, it is illegal for mental health providers to engage in “reparative therapy” for LGBT minors. In Uganda, you may be sent to jail for up to 14 years for failing to report a suspected homosexual.

More than half of new lawyers in Canada are women. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive a car, vote, or leave home except in the company of a male chaperone.

In all these cases, the divergence is just too great. And no one, anywhere, should attempt to justify these differences via the notion of ‘culture.’ They remain in place because it is to the advantage of the privileged group that they do so.

Does digital technology close these gaps, or drive them ever wider? The answer is complex. Certainly those phones held up by the two young men in Guinea offer them opportunities for information-gathering and commerce that are unprecedented historically, potentially meaning that their lives are ‘lifted’ economically, educationally, socially. But at the same time, the very persistence of superstition, illiteracy, and poverty means that, if those two young men rise up, the gap between them and those next to them who believe in the power of exorcism will grow.

The rising tide of digital technology most assuredly does not lift all boats, any more than the growing wealth of the economic elite trickles down, in any effective way, to those living at the bottom of the financial hill. Any time the separation between two sets of people grows too great, whether it be the Mayan priests ruling over Palenque in the 7th century, or Marie Antoinette and her husband ruling over France during the final years of the 18th century, it does not bode well for us.

In today’s global village, the discrepancies which exist internationally present problems on a scale not seen before, and I mean that quite literally, because we are more aware of these problems than we have ever been before. We no longer have to wait for an emissary to return to court, after a year-long mission, to know about the conditions of a far-off land and its people. But, at same time, today’s problems are of a distressingly familiar order.

Those at the peak of today’s societal pyramid are doing just fine, thanks. What’s called for are measures to assure that the pyramid does not get any higher, that it in fact flattens, delivering greater equality of rights, education, health care, and economic opportunity to all people everywhere.

I’m sounding frighteningly socialistic to some I know, but the lessons of history are there for all of us to observe, and we ignore them at our peril. It is in our own interests to help those being left out or behind, wherever they live, because the discrepancies of today’s world are a threat to us all.