Thursday, January 19, 2017

Black Lives Matter, But Bullying Is Still Bullying

Just back last evening from our Cuban sojourn, it will take a little while to get my blogging and political legs back up to speed, given that I was peacefully unconnected for a week. However, an item in today's paper caught my attention that I feel moved to comment on.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I take great exception to the abuse of power, whether political, economic, or social. However, none of that exempts victims from criticism, not as victims, of course, but as members of our larger society. It is in that spirit that I offer my criticism of what looks to be an affirmation of the decision to exclude the Toronto Police from future participation in the annual Gay Pride Parade.

First, some background:
Black Lives Matter brought the 2016 parade to a standstill for more than half an hour in July, refusing to move until Pride officials agreed to a list of nine demands.
The most contentious of those extortionate demands, in my view, was the total removal of all police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community booths.

I always felt it was not Black Pride Toronto's call to make, and that they had in fact abused the invitation they had been given to join the parade; of course, ultimately that judgement and the decision on whether or not to honour the hastily-agreed upon deal by then-executive director Mathieu Chantelois to get the parade moving again had to be made by the membership. And according to the article referenced above, they have done so.

This strikes me as a huge mistake. No one would argue that the police have, historically, abused the gay population, the infamous bathhouse raids of 1981 being perhaps the most public and egregious example, when patrons were mocked, humiliated — and arrested by the hundreds. A brief video found here affords a glimpse of the mindset that pervaded the times.

But this is no longer 1981, and last July Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders made an historic apology for this flagrant abuse of authority, an apology that was an important repudiation of such repugnant tactics. I like to think that the intervening 36 years have seen some evolution in the authorities' attitudes.

Why jeopardize those advances and the understanding between the two communities that both the passage of time and the participation in the Gay Pride festivities have helped make possible? To shut off such an important line of communication between the gay community and police culture seems to be counterproductive at the very least, given that the cultivation of such positive ties can only serve to strengthen understanding and empathy.

As neither a black nor a gay man, by what right do I offer an opinion on this issue? To suggest that this is only a black issue or a gay issue overlooks a larger point. They are all part of something bigger, Canadian society as a whole, so my expressed view is as a member of that society. To assert that only gays or blacks have any right to opine here would be to ghettoize and, to some extent, dehumanize, them as occupying special categories of citizenship.

We surely do not want to return to such prejudicial thinking, I hope.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Brief Programming Note

The winds were blowing. The snow was falling. The telephone rang. Cuba was calling with an offer we couldn't refuse.

See you in about a week.

Monday, January 9, 2017

How To Think, Not What To Think

I have been retired from teaching for 10 years now, and I can say that since departing, I have not missed the classroom for a single day. I say this despite the fact that every few weeks I dream about being back on the job, usually with about two weeks before final exams, and there is something critical that I have failed to teach. In the dream I excoriate myself for having failed my students, and myself, in a crucial way.

I'm not sure why that dream and its regular permutations haunt me so long into retirement, since I know I did the job to the best of my ability throughout my career. But there is always that sense that there was something left undone, perhaps a fitting metaphor for what education really is, a life-long process we all have a moral responsibility to pursue, whether through courses, reading independently, or engaging deeply in issues of import.

Probably the greatest unfinished goal, a perpetual work in progress, is the journey toward critical thinking, about which I have written many times on this blog. Without that capacity, people are not only enslaved to their emotions, biases and prejudices, but also vulnerable to the crass manipulation of those around them, including the media and their political 'leaders'. Never has it been more important to strive to be an independent, critical parser of the world around us.

The other day I happened upon an interesting article by an educator and consultant, Catherine Little, discussing this invaluable skill within the context of the classroom:
Critical thinking might be defined as the process of analyzing and evaluating an issue in order to form a judgment. It is much more difficult to do than define and even harder to teach. However, it is an essential skill and necessary for citizens to effectively exercise their rights and responsibilities.
Teaching students to think critically often results in lively debate as they come to realize people think differently. Teachers must model how to disagree productively and empower students to defend their beliefs passionately but respectfully while working toward change.

By focusing on big ideas and skills, teachers empower students to use what they learn beyond school.
I might quibble at this point and suggest that teachers do not so much teach critical thinking as they do provide the knowledge and the environment within which critical thinking can arise. For example, when I used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, a fine classic about the consequences of the dustbowl in the thirties, I would often ask how John Steinbeck manipulates our sympathies toward the dispossessed Okies and against the landowners, and thereby have them realize that all novels, no matter how noble, are subversive in their intent. We would also do simulations whereby a large camp of dispossessed had suddenly set up in their community, and explore how the community would deal with it from the perspective of a real estate brokerage, local store owners, the ministry, PTA, school board, etc. Each role required thought and deliberation, preconditions to any attempt at critical thinking.

Ms. Little's experience was not dissimilar:
As a student, I experienced a masterful example of teaching for critical thinking when I studied the two World Wars in a high school history class. My teacher planned her lessons to enable us to respond to this final exam question: “It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Discuss using examples from this course.”

Her approach forced us to analyze and evaluate the events we had studied in order to form a judgment about the effects power might have on any leader — a skill that has come in handy on many occasions.
Clearly, these are not skills that have a place only in the classroom:
Recently, I wondered how the leader of a revolution to overthrow a dictator might come to be regarded as a dictator himself? I have also been contemplating how the effects of power might be influencing our own government’s attitude toward electoral reform and cash — for — access fundraisers.

When in third place, The Liberal Party campaigned on the need for electoral reform and promised that if elected, 2015 would be the last under the first-past-the-post voting system. After they were elected to a majority government under this system, they seemed to backtrack. Might a party’s preference for an electoral system be influenced by how much power it has?

When taking power, Prime Minister Trudeau promised his party would “ … uphold the highest standards of integrity and impartiality both in our public and private affairs.” Might being in power affect how a government defines integrity and impartiality?
She ends her essay, as I will this post, reflecting on the relevance and crucial role critical thinking must play today:
Thankfully, my teachers believed in the importance of critical thinking and were able to find ways to use their subject matter to encourage it by asking big questions and teaching students the skills that enabled them to think about those questions critically. By doing this, they made sure I had the skills to question the words and actions of any leader — no matter how popular — and act accordingly.

It seems to me that in this “fake news” and “post-truth” age, the need to teach critical thinking is only growing in urgency.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

An Inconvenient Truth The Corporate Agenda Would Like To Keep Hidden

Their protests notwithstanding, the truth is that raising the minimum wage is good for business. And it isn't just the behemoths depicted above who benefit.
The CEO of a popular fast food chain said this week that he was “stunned” to see profits soar each time California passed minimum wage increases.

In an interview with KQED on Tuesday, Wetzel’s Pretzels CEO Bill Phelps admitted that his investors were worried about how a 2014 wage hike would impact the business.

“Like most business people I was concerned about it,” Phelps said.

For years, opponents of minimum wage increases have argued that wage hikes mean fewer jobs because businesses have to raise prices and cut hours to cover the additional expenses. But Phelps said that his sales skyrocketed after a California law forced businesses to raise wages in 2014.
While business reflexively condemns any wage increases as devastating job-killers, Phelps came to understand a basic economic truth: when people, especially those in the lower echelons of society, have more money in their pocket, they tend to spend it.
Mike Jacobs, owner of a Wetzel’s Pretzels franchise in Concord’s Sunvalley Shopping Center, told KQED that the increased business can be attributed to the fact that his customers are making more money.

“My overall sales were something like 15 percent ahead after the first minimum wage bump, and now they’re about 12 percent ahead this year,” Jacobs explained. “It isn’t because I’m such a great manager or smart guy, but the buying public has more money in their pocket.”
Expect this information to fork no lightning with the neoliberal set, who hew to scare stories that support their greed. And in that pursuit, they have a strong ally in Andrew F. Puzder, Trump's pick for secretary of labour and a staunch opponent of minimum wage increases, who says,
I’m opposed to raising it to the point where lower-skilled workers, working-class Americans, young people, minorities, are losing the jobs they need to get on the ladder of success.”
Try telling that to the employees at places like Wetzel’s Pretzels and In-N-Out Burger, which I wrote about last March after our visit to Southern California.

But of course, I forget myself. We are about to enter, with the Trump presidency, an era where truth and facts mean little.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Just The Beginning

I think we all know that this story, and many others like it, will not end well.
A long-running rift in the Larsen C ice shelf grew suddenly in December and now just 20km of ice is keeping the 5,000 sq km piece from floating away.

Larsen C is the most northern major ice shelf in Antarctica.
Says researcher Prof Adrian Luckman, from Swansea University,
"We would expect in the ensuing months to years further calving events, and maybe an eventual collapse - but it's a very hard thing to predict, and our models say it will be less stable; not that it will immediately collapse or anything like that."

As it floats on the sea, the resulting iceberg from the shelf will not raise sea levels. But if the shelf breaks up even more, it could result in glaciers that flow off the land behind it to speed up their passage towards the ocean. This non-floating ice would have an impact on sea levels.

According to estimates, if all the ice that the Larsen C shelf currently holds back entered the sea, global waters would rise by 10cm[emphasis added].

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Next Four Years Should Be Interesting Indeed

It doesn't seem to matter to America's rabid right wing that they got what they wanted: a man in the White House who they believe will magically solve all the problems bedeviling their crumbling empire. No, for them that is only the beginning. Until all bow before them in abject and utter obeisance, victory is not total and nor really all that sweet.

Such would appear to be the current bee in the mad bonnet of one of their chief spokesmen, television demagogue Bill O'Reilly, who is now taking extreme exception to those performers (and there are apparently plenty of them) who are refusing the invitation to perform at the Orange One's inauguration.

Watch below as the "No Spin" meister fulminates, characterizing as Un-American those who are now exercising their extant but perhaps endangered democratic right not to respond positively to Donald Trump's invitation. It gets really entertaining when conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer doesn't play along with O'Reilly: