Tag Archives: activism

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.

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.

 

Immigration

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.

 

Clicktivism

I first joined Amnesty International back in the early 80s.  I still have a thickish file containing carbon copies of the letters I wrote and sent back then, thwacked out over the hum of my portable electric typewriter.  Despite my efforts to keep them informed, A.I. didn’t do a particularly good job of tracking me as I moved about from place to place in the following years, but, nevertheless, on and off, I’ve been sending protest messages under their aegis for some 30 years now.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

But these days it’s a whole lot easier.  These days I receive an email from them, outlining another outrage by an oppressive government somewhere, and I’m asked to simply ‘sign’ a petition.  They have my details on hand already, so all I need do is click to the petition page and click one more time.  Done.

It’s called ‘clicktivism,’ and, quite rightly, its comparative value is questionable.  In the 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan took this somewhat indirect swipe at the practice: “… instead of organizing, lobbying and campaigning… we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action.  Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.”

Writing in The Guardian a year earlier, Micah White made a much more direct attack: “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal.  It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”  White points out that clicktivism is largely activism co-opted by the techniques of online marketing.  The greater the emphasis on click-rates, bloated petition numbers and other marketing metrics, the cheaper the value of the message, according to White, resulting in “a race to the bottom of political engagement.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that organizations like Amnesty pass their contact lists to other like organizations, presumably for compensation, without soliciting consent.  I did sign on with Avaaz, but I’ve never asked to receive emails from SumOfUs, Care2 Action Alerts, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Plan Canada, the Council of Canadians, All Out, Change.org or Care Canada, but I do.  I will readily admit that many of those emails go unopened.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to come to terms with ethically.  These organizations are undoubtedly staffed by well-meaning people who genuinely believe they are making a difference.  And I’m sure that sometimes they do.  Yet there is also no doubt that the greatly facilitated process that clicktivism represents degrades more on-the-ground forms of political protest, and allows people like myself to make essentially meaningless contributions to worthy causes.  ‘Facilitate’ may be the operative word here, as in facile, meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “too simple; not showing enough thought or effort.”

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950.  Last year Amnesty International organized the sending of more than 1.8 million messages to governments everywhere on that date, asking them to respect the rights of people and communities under threat of persecution.  To their credit, in addition to urging their members to send messages, Amnesty is encouraging its members to organize or attend an event in their community or workplace on December 10.  They have targeted seven different cases of human rights abuse from around the globe for action.  These include Dr. Ten Aung, who was given a 17-year jail sentence in Myanmar last year after attempting to keep the peace between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinyga Muslims; Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who has faced threats, intimidation and beatings in Belarus for attempting to register a group in support of LGBTI rights, and Badia East, from Nigeria, who, along with many of her neighbours, was left destitute and without compensation after authorities destroyed her home last February.

The problem with my problem with clicktivism is that it pales in comparison to the problems faced by these brave people on a daily basis.  And like so many other new processes made possible by digital technology, the change represented by online activism is not about to reverse itself.  We keep our eyes forward, think critically, and do what we can.  I’ll try to write a letter on December 10.