A Riposte (of sorts) to Sarah Garton Stanley

Though probably I surrender some amount of high ground by doing so, I must begin this post with a bashful mea culpa. In her latest, rather moving & impressive article for SpiderWebShow’s #CdnCult Times, National Arts Centre English Theatre A.D. Sarah Garton Stanley calls me out on a rhetorical snafu by citing my previous post:

[Offord] goes on to say: “The fact of the matter is, we Canadians are deeply insecure about most things, & our theatre scene (I’m being hugely Toronto-centric in this, note; Toronto’s all I know, really), … has an inferiority complex for which “Napoleonic” is putting it mildly.

The use of the word “fact” is incredible here and so too is the use of a “we”, or “our”, all of which leads to paradox of the “us”. How interesting.

Yeah, I deserved that one. I should probably avoid making sweeping, nationality-based generalizations while at the same time attacking the substantive value of both nations & generalization. Garton Stanley’s barbed acumen on this point & others (“intermittently accurate” is such a great phrase I may have to steal it) is matched only by the very touching account she gives of her teenage years, inveigled by Levesque’s particular brand of acid-sharp PQ separatism, & the lasting effect this had on her patriotic father. It’s a lovely passage, & apropos; we can forget all too easily that these questions do not dwell just in the suburbs of academic discussion (I almost used the word “discourse” there – without irony – which perhaps says a lot about me). These issues matter.

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W(h)ither a National Theatre? (corrected below)

The impetus for this post comes from Michael Wheeler (Artistic Director of the politically minded Praxis Theatre Company), whose new project is called SpiderWebShow, described as “A theatrical space where Canada, the Internet and performance minds intersect” (the absent Oxford comma is, I assure you, thoroughly sic). Both Mr. Wheeler & Praxis are rare creatures of at least the Torontonian theatre scene that I know, in that they are interested not just in the creation of performances, but in seriously pursuing the “Why” of theatre in Canada. Practitioners too often leave these questions to academics – Holger Syme, for example – & adopt a sort of “See No Evil” attitude which ultimately manifests in the work. Not to say the work is bad, per se; merely that a lot of times it seems disconnected from a public discourse about theatrical teleology. Even in the way plays are marketed (& reviewed) they adopt the qualities of commercial products, of things which are bought & sold but not necessarily important, vital, or immediate.

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The time has come, my little friends…

“The time has come, my little friends, to talk of many things – of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings; of whether the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings…”

So as it turns out, a daily news post was a tad ambitious. Not to say that nobody read it (but then, what do I know about who reads this thing of mine), but to say that I have to eat and live and sometimes sleep, and working a full-time job whilst doing theatre stuff on my off hours has had a deleterious effect on my ability to regurgitate news media, I’m sorry to say, I know you miss it (no I don’t). I’m going to try to do my best to post a weekly round-up every Saturday or Sunday, which’ll sort of curate the week’s bizness into digestible chunks, for your reading displeasure.

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I told you so w/r/t Barack Obama…

There are, believe it or not, instances in which I hate being right:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order

 

From the article:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

 

Speaking of Racism (update)

Apropos to my piece about the Toronto Star‘s latent racism, yesterday a Somali-Canadian man named Abdi Aidid, law student & member of a TDSB task force whose mandate is to reduce the drop-out rate for young Somali students in the city, wrote a letter to the paper about their reportage viz. the Rob Ford scandal:

“At every stop, they point out that the individuals involved are Somali. ‘Somali’ appears 11 times in the article, exactly as many times as the word ‘crack…I am deeply hurt by this.”

Star Public Editor Kathy English makes a half-hearted attempt to address this. You’ll judge for your self whether she does so adequately.

What “Star Trek Into Darkness” can teach us about US foreign policy (spoilers within)

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness is not a great film, but it’s a phenomenally fun one & worth the price of admission, easily. It’s scope is not quite as broad as 2009’s Star Trek, & since it’s the sophomore film in what is likely going to be at least a trilogy if not saga of pretty serious sci-fi action films, a lot of fanboys’ expectations are likely not going to be met; but if you, like me, saw it on a particularly cold & miserable & rainy weekday evening in a sparsely attended cinema, & if you approach the film with kind of open heart we should reserve for movies that just ain’t art, you’re going to have a good time. I mean, if you sat through the execrable Inglorious Basterds & liked it, there should be no excuse in this respect.

Star Trek Into Darkness takes place in an alternate universe that may or may not have been created by Nero, the Romulan miner & the previous movie’s central bad guy, when he went back in time through a wormhole & destroyed planet Vulcan. One of the major problems I had with the first Star Trek – fun though it was – was that I found the story overly complicated & full of all kinds of nifty albeit confusing sci-fi time-travel paradoxes that never got properly addressed. Thus, I’m not really going to try & précis the original movie; just trust me when I say that the events of Star Trek Into Darkness (STID) take place in a very different reality than any of the actual series & older films.

The plot of STID is one of the least interesting things about it, so I won’t dwell on storyline – basically, when stripped of a lot of peripheral action the essential plot involves a terrorist attack on one of Starfleet’s archive buildings, which subsequently gives the same terrorist (whom we’re told early on is some sort of spy named John Harrison) an opportunity to wipe out a bunch of Starfleet brass with a futuristic helicopter. Thereafter, Cpt. James T. Kirk, First Officer Spock (which is what, his last name? first name?), et. al.  are sent on what is described as a “manhunt” deep in enemy territory, the Klingon homeworld of Kronos.

One of the things that makes the original Star TrekStar Trek TNG, & to a lesser extent Star Trek: Voyager so compulsively watchable – & what tends to differentiate them from the often inferior movie spin-offs – is that they were in reality never about the fi-ness of sci-fi, never about fancy F/X or long, protracted martial arts scenes on the hulls of weird floating hover ships.  Star Trek has always been a show about ideas, about taking ordinary characters & placing them in situations in which they have to reconcile their preconceived earthling ethics with alien races whose ethical paradigms are shifted some degrees left or right. One of my favourites of these was a TNG episode in which the Klingon Worf, played by the indomitable Michael Dorn, suffers a back injury from a falling piece of equipment & is rendered paraplegic. The Klingon sensibility being entirely governed by an almost samurai sense of honour,  Worf demands that he be allowed to commit some kind of Klingon seppuku, & asks his superiors to help him to do this – except that Worf has a twelve year-old son, Alexander, whom he’s raising on his own. Do Worf’s obligations as a father take precedent over his sense of honour? & what if “honour” in this sense is really just a short hand for “religion,” which is what the episode clearly implies? You can see how this stuff can get interesting.

In STID, the ethical dilemmas take a place somewhere in the background among the F/X wizardry, but they’re interesting to touch on. Kirk’s told essentially to take an arsenal of fancy torpedoes, find John Harrison (whom I might as well tell you right now is actually Khan, of The Wrath of Khan – & if you’re taking issue with Benedict Cumberbatch playing an Indian, you have to admit that he’s at least as Indian as Ricardo Montalbán) & basically vaporize him. Spock, ever the voice of reason, takes issue with this, reminding Kirk that “There is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial.” (N.B.: Since the shooting script for STID isn’t yet available online, I’m working from memory here, so the quotation may not be exact; I have, however, had it corroborated from other sources, & it’s pretty damn close.)

(A quick digression: this begs some question over what, exactly is Starfleet & its mandate? In STID, there seems to be some tension between  Starfleet qua explorers versus military; while the original series have always taken place during exploratory missions, Starfleet’s also always been the go-to organization for intergalactic warfare, & at the very least seems to be the only game in town w/r/t advanced weaponry. Maybe a good analogy might be – if the Federation is like the UN, Starfleet would be only one division among many thereof, comprised of multiple planets rather & not the geocentric organization it sometimes appears to be. I guess its purview would therefore be space as a whole – i.e., exploration, diplomacy, trade, peacekeeping, defence, &c.)

If you, like me, are a compulsive consumer of news media, some pretty obvious parallels can be drawn between the abovementioned ethical dilemma & a few of the more seedy operations US foreign policy has inflicted on the world lately. In particular I can think of two, which screenwriter Robert Orci has sort of ham-fistedly combined to create a kind of Ur-allegory, a political universal derived from two particulars.

The first obvious one is the targeted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, which the Obama administration only formally copped to a couple days ago. al-Awlaki was an American citizen, born in New Mexico, educated in the United States, who later became a radical propagandist for al-Qaeda & subsequently accused by US officials of being in some way operationally connected to terrorist activities. No evidence was ever adduced to support these claims, but this hasn’t stopped President Obama (who has made targeted assassination with drone strikes a centerpiece of his counter-terrorism strategy & personally signs off on every hit) from openly gloating about it on television. (According to a letter to Congress written by Attorney General Eric Holder, al-Awlaki was only one of four American citizens executed without trial or due process by drone strikes personally ordered by Obama; another was al-Awlaki’s sixteen year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki).

In STID, Khan is obviously meant to be an ersatz al-Awlaki, whose destruction, while not ordered to be carried out by drones, is nonetheless to be done at long-distance through remote photon torpedoes.  But while Khan is at least nominally a citizen of the Federation, the analogy with al-Awlaki ends there. Khan, we are led to believe, actually did commit major atrocities, which it’s not clear al-Awlaki ever did (it is not a crime in the United States, no matter what the media tell you, to say things). This makes Khan an almost Osama bin Laden figure, & indeed, the plan-of-action w/r/t his killing bears a great deal of similarity to the execution of bin Laden.

Consider, for example, the shameless breach of sovereignty represented by both governments – in real life, the invasion of Pakistani soil by American troops (to say nothing of the CIA’s fake vaccination program during the weeks before, which have since proved hugely damaging to the international vaccination movement) without permission, thereupon engaging in a firefight & killing unarmed suspects without so much as notifying the Pakistani government. In STID, Pakistan is Klingon space & Abbottabad is Kronos; & while bin Laden, like Khan, was overwhelmingly believed to be the perpetrator of atrocities, there was no actual hard evidence provided of this. Or if there were, why not capture bin Laden (or Khan, as Spock demands) & have him tried at the ICC (oh, wait…the Americans can’t do that because they don’t recognize the ICC…)? Hell, trying bin Laden anywhere would have been less damaging to American credibility than his summary execution.

What’s interesting about the way STID presents the case for Khan’s arrest & trial versus Starfleet Admiral Marcus’s gonzo assassination plan is how obvious the moral choice seems to be. Of course Khan should have a trial – there isn’t even an attempt at presenting the other side of the argument in this film (uncharacteristic for a real Star Trek conundrum, but let’s take what we can get). Spock knows it intuitively; so do Uhura & McCoy. Kirk’s storyline for much of the movie involves him in overcoming an intuitive, emotional desire for revenge in order to achieve a more rational & civilized & also deeper & more meaningful justice.

It seems unlikely that any movie-going audience member in America could possibly side with Marcus, but oddly the polling data shows that 75% of Americans approve of targeted assassination, & 24% even approve of assassinating American citizens. Its puzzling that moral truths clearly rendered in fiction don’t find immanentization in real life. What, exactly, is the blindness, & where does it come from?

One possible explanation is that it comes from Barack Obama himself. The erstwhile harbinger of “hope” & “change” has become arguably one of the most destructive & ruthless presidents in American history, from his almost erotic support for killing innocents with drones to the fact that he has prosecuted more journalists & leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other American presidents combined, to his signing of the Monsanto Protection Act & thus entrenching corporate control over what we eat & how our food is produced (an aside: Monsanto also manufactured Agent Orange during the Vietnam war; this should tell you something), Obama has consistently demonstrated that he hates democracy & freedom & has little or no interest in even basic standards of justice & rationality. Yet even today his supporters in the mainstream media bleat their insipid hero-worship, immune to the forces of fact & argumentation. They use the sideshow bizarreness of Fox News & the risibility of the GOP as a distraction, the better to wrap themselves in feel-goodness about dear Barack.

In the Star Trek universe, the cult of personality (except, perhaps, as it applies to Kirk himself) seems to have gone the way of currency, poverty & disease (although this does raise certain questions w/r/t the governance structure of the Federation). Admiral Marcus, although clearly a colossal asshole, is nonetheless one guy with one guy’s opinion, & there is no PR machine backing him up – only an arsenal of photon torpedoes, & those, believe me, are far less dangerous.

As the ending of STID gropes for political relevance with a speech bearing all the finesse of a PSA, we are reminded by Cpt. Kirk that “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” What this means is that the characters in Star Trek have done nothing more nor less than embraced the most elemental of ethical precepts – that we apply to ourselves far more rigid moral standards than we apply to others, that we take responsibility for what we – & those we elect, & for us in Canada, whom our governments openly support – do.

It might also be to ask the question, racing straight past the verily fair-haired All-Americanism of Kirk himself to the inscrutable foreigner: what would Mr. Spock do?

Speaking of racism…

I in no way would want to diminish or minimize any of the racist/homophobic remarks Rob Ford has made, but why is no one talking about the basically explicit racism of this photo:

This photo shows Toronto Mayor Rob Ford with two men, one whom might be, according to a source, fatal gunshot victim Anthony Smith. The photo was given to the Toronto Star by the same person who later showed <em>Star</em> reporters a video in which Ford appears to be smoking crack cocaine

This being the photograph the Toronto Star ran on its front page when it made its allegations of Rob-Ford-crack-smoking-video-ocity. The photo shows Rob Ford with two men, one of whom is believed to be Toronto shooting victim Anthony Smith. Traditionally, photographs in newsmedia are used to provide readers with visual reaffirmation of the photos’ accompanying stories; sometimes, as in the case of war photography, a photo can be a useful & powerful tool to evoke deeper & more human responses to crises & conflicts that otherwise might seem too far removed from the daily experiences of the reader. Other times, a photograph can be used to provide actual evidence of what the journalists are reporting, such as for instance when newsmedia published images taken from the surveillance video of Conrad Black removing files from his office.

Given this understanding of photography & its uses viz. journalism, an inquiring & intelligent reader might be inclined to scan the above photo’s accompanying article for clue as to its connection with the story. But —

“It’s not connected to the video.” – Robyn Doolittle, CBC interview, May 18.

Oh. So…but then — why’s it in the paper? Well, according to Doolittle (one of the reporters who broke this “story”) the photo was given to them as “evidence” that their source “had information that Rob Ford was hanging out with people…[pregnant pause]…who were getting shot.”

What the…?

What does “people who were getting shot” have to do in any way with Rob Ford smoking crack? I’m confused. Is there gunplay in this supposed video that isn’t being reported on? How is gun violence even remotely relevant to the story Doolittle’s reporting?

Doolittle goes on to explain that, “It’s more about…I don’t want to disparage the people in the video because obviously we have no idea what they were doing  [emphasis de mois], but…one person was killed in a shootout…and I think they were just trying to show some connection to Rob Ford with this world.”

Nothing in the above quotation makes any sense. To say nothing of the fact that she doesn’t even address the photograph in particular (which is what interviewer Brent Bambury asking her about), she admits that she knows absolutely nothing about the people in the video or who they were, but for some reason affirms that it’s important to recognize that:

  1. Anthony Smith was shot (even though he has nothing to do with the video)
  2. Anthony Smith may have associated with dangerous people (though there’s no evidence that they’re crack dealers)
  3. Rob Ford had his picture taken with two black men, one of whom may be Anthony Smith (though there isn’t any evidence of that either)
  4.  Rob Ford may have smoked crack (though, again, no evidence as yet)

I keep trying to reconcile these discrete bits of information & form some kind of coherent understanding of their relationship, but to be honest I just keep getting more & more confused & irritated. What do any of these speculations have to do with each other or the video? This is just shameless, irresponsible journalism which doesn’t even have enough respect for the readers’ intelligence to even pretend to try to make sense of the allegations & false allusions being made.

& to what does “that world” refer? The world of gun violence? But there’s no evidence of that. You even said there wasn’t any sound evidence. It certainly can’t refer to the world of crack dealing, because there’s no evidence that anyone in the photo is in any way connected to crack.

So what can she possibly mean? The only thing I can think of is, “that world” refers to “the world of black people, who are, as we all know, prone to drug dealing & gun violence.”

If anyone can give me a good argument demonstrating that the Star‘s publication of this picture wasn’t a blatanly racist attempt at tabloid-schlock journalism, I encourage him/her to do so.

You can listen to the complete interview I’ve cited here The stuff about the photo starts at 7:30.

 

Rob Ford Crack Scandal: Who gives a @#$%?

Part of the problem with, perhaps of, the way contemporary democracy functions is that because elections are mostly run by advertising agencies & PR firms (Obama’s 2008 campaign, for example, won two Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Awards), the focus of the media & therefore the public tends to be on personality rather than policy. This by now so obvious that I’m frankly embarrassed to reiterate it; it’s such a terrible cliché.

But given the recent “Rob Ford Crack Scandal” that bedights the Torontonian establishment media right now, I think it might be worth repeating. The bleeding of a politician’s personal foibles into the public sphere tends to cause a certain amount of confusion over what is actually important & relevant & worth reading about.

Here’s another cliché that might be worth remembering: the media are mostly owned by private corporations whose first obligation is to make money; TORSTAR, the corporation whose holdings include The Toronto Star, The Grid, & Metro (as well as the workpolis.com job listings site & the Harlequin romance imprimatur) is not an exception to this. So when the Star publishes a story claiming to have caught Toronto’s mayor smoking a crack pipe (begging certain questions w/r/t what, exactly, constitutes a crack pipe versus any other kind of pipe), I don’t think I can be blamed for reserving a certain amount of skepticism. Particularly since this story seems to be strangely unfettered by things like evidence; look, I encourage you, for actual facts (names, places, &c.) in the coverage of the story, & report back to me.

But okay, let’s suppose it were true. All of it, at its very worst: Rob Ford, sitting on an armchair, smoking crack & calling Justin Trudeau a fag. The question is: so who cares? Does the fact that Rob Ford smokes crack & uses homophobic language in anyway alter or affect the policies of which he’s a sponsor? What actual difference does this information make to the way you & I go about our lives in the city of Toronto?

If you think that drug use & prejudicial attitudes are rare qualities in politicians, I have to disabuse you of this notion. Winston Churchill was more-or-less a raving alcoholic & rumored cocaine & methamphetamine addict, who was known for saying some less-than-ecumenical things about minority groups. He was known, for instance, to affirm that “Aryan stock is bound to triumph,” & “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion.” (Of course, those who are aware of the origins of the Aryan race will find this an ironic apposition).

John F. Kennedy, a famous philanderer, was also a hard-core prescription drug-addict. Our own Sir John A. Macdonald? Alcoholic. Mackenzie King was known to regularly converse with his dead mother & receive political advice from “Pat,” his dog. As far as personal problems go, everybody’s favorite Liberal, Bill Clinton, has raped at least two women, for which he gets absolutely no flack whatsoever, & against which Ford’s alleged recreational drug use seems to wane apace.

But for us every day Torontonians, the real question we should be asking is: are we surprised? Is there anyone who didn’t think Ford was a latent homophobe, given his boycotting of the Pride parade? Is there someone who thinks that a clean & sober Rob Ford would be refusing to let Enbridge build pipelines through the city, would fund public transit, would ride a bicycle to work every day?

If Rob Ford smokes crack (again, there’s no evidence of this of any kind & no effort has yet been made to provide any), this is not what makes his policies moronic. His policies are moronic because he’s a moron. And there ain’t no rehab for that.