About Devonavar

Devonavar changes the world. Big words, but everyone changes the world. We affect everything around us just by being. This is about more than just being. Sometimes, we can choose how we affect the world. This is about those rare times when I choose how I change the world, and what those changes mean to me.

The Homicidal Bitchin’ that goes down in Every Kitchen


From the homicidal bitchin’
that does down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.

Democracy is coming
to the U.S.A.

Leonard Cohen

This post is inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, about how money is made of mass surveillance. I’m not overly impressed by the book, but there’s a section describing the Chinese Social Credit system which made me reflect on how we should determine — and how we actually determine — social status.

For the uninitiated, The Social Credit System is a “social score” that measures, in essence, how good a person you are (as determined by the Communist Party of China). It’s compiled automatically, without input or knowledge from the citizens themselves, on the basis of online behaviour: What you buy, who you communicate with, what topics you talk about. It’s enabled by mass surveillance, but the basic idea of keeping dossiers on social behaviour and using them for social control is much older than our current problems with online tracking. Think Stasi, the KGB, and all the stories of secret informants that came out of the Soviet era.

Essentially, it’s a government-run system of social status. Call it a class system (but don’t tell the Communist Party). By Western standards, it’s terrifying and Orwellian, and Zuboff’s description of the system is intended as a dystopia. She quotes the Economist to describe the systems social consequences:

People on the list can be prevented from buying aeroplane, bullet-train or first- or business-class rail tickets; selling, buying or building a house; or enrolling their children in expensive fee-paying schools. There are restrictions on offenders joining or being promoted in the party and army, and on receiving honours and titles.

China invents the digital totalitarian state — Economist — December 17, 2016

She goes on to describe the benefits of having a high social credit score:

Those with high scores receive honours and rewards … They can rent a car without a deposit, receive favourable terms on loans and apartment rentals, receive fast-tracking for visa permits, enjoy being showcased on dating apps, and a host of other perks.

Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p.390

Dystopian it may be, but it got me thinking: How do we distribute the rewards of high social status here in Canada? Who gets social privilege in our society?

The answer should surprise no one: Money. Money is our system of social credit. Only people with money can buy aeroplane tickets or houses, or send their kids to private schools. Perversely, having money will gets you better mortgage terms from the bank or determine whether you qualify for a mortgage at all! We idolize the rich and we act as though the ability to make money is the mark of superior person — the more money, the more superior the person. Not having money is worse — without money, we are deprived of any number of privileges and comforts, including basic human needs like food or shelter.

That got me thinking even more: Is determining social status though wealth really a better system than determining it through social behaviour? Don’t we want to reward the people who act in socially positive ways rather than just rewarding the rich? Does that make the Chinese system better than our own?

I’m not here to defend the Chinese system. I think it’s terrifying. I think most Westerners would prefer equality — a fair system would distribute housing and aeroplane tickets more or less equally, not according to social status. That’s the American dream: Freedom and equality. The ability to make it on your own, no matter who you are.

But I think that’s how we ended up using money to represent social status. We’ve persuaded ourselves that we’ve actually built an equal society, and in doing so we’ve made ourselves blind to the ways that social status is actually determined. We believe in our ideals more than the reality we live in. By saying we have no class system, we have ignored how social status is actually determined. Like it or not, humans are incredibly sensitive to social status, and even the most egalitarian, communal organizations quickly and inevitably create a pecking order. We cannot create a fair system by ignoring status. Somebody has to speak first; someone has to take the first bite. Social status is our way of figuring out who deserves those privileges.

So what are our options? How should we determine social status? What’s fair? I can think of lots of ways that have been tried. Money. Popularity. Age. Heredity. Beauty. Strength. Intelligence. The Chinese system, terrifying as it is, assigns privilege on the basis of moral quality.

On a practical level, we make status judgments on a person-to-person basis. We compare ourselves to each other, and decide for ourselves whether we are superior or inferior, and then modify our behaviour based on that judgment. There are dozens or hundreds of social cues that go into this judgment: All the factors I mentioned above and plenty more. The important thing though, is that it is our judgment. The terrifying thing about the Social Credit system is that the system’s judgment of our worth may not match our own. We may be forced into a status that does not match our self-image. Money is harder to argue with. We may not like the amount we have, but we know how much is there. I’m not sure that makes money a better measure of status, but it may explain why we are more comfortable with it. Or, perhaps we are just more familiar with it.

I’ve struggled to think of a fair way to determine status, and I’m not sure there is one. Our sense of status is given to us by the culture we live in, and it’s immensely difficult to try and change it. There’s nothing about our culture — or any other — that says status has to be fair. Our individual assessments of status may be self-determined, but there are any number of small social pressures that let us know when others disagree with our self-assessed status. If we “choose” a status that doesn’t match social expectations, we may fool a few people (and ourselves), but in the long run, we’ll inevitably come across as foolish or delusional (two very low status images) if we act too far outside our station.

I’m not sure how social status should work, and that bothers me. I started writing this piece because of an intuition that the ways we determine who deserves to be high status could be improved. At the end of the day, I don’t think wealth is a good way to distribute housing and aeroplane tickets, and the idea that they could be distributed on the basis of some higher ideal of social worth appeals to me. At the same time, the Chinese Social Credit System is too horrifying to contemplate. I doubt any centralized institution of social status could be fair or workable. But, if we don’t think consciously about how social status works, we will be at the mercy of those who do, whether they are Chinese software engineers or American capitalists.

Can Multi-Cultural Canada Tolerate a Prime Minister in Brownface?

Well, isn’t this embarrassing. Our national election campaign has dissolved into a quivering puddle of racial angst thanks to a set of 20 year old photos showing our Prime Minister playing dress-up in various skin colours that don’t belong to him. His polls are down 1.268 percent in the national horse race, and progressive, right-thinking citizens are faced with a terrible conundrum: Do they condemn the Prime Minister for his thoughtless racism and risk letting the dreaded Conservatives take the election, or stay silent and endure the guilt of being complicit in the Prime Minister’s oppression of people of colour everywhere?

Forgive me for being glib. There’s a serious issue here, but I find it a bit hard to keep a straight face with the amount of overwrought vitriol that is floating around. I’m sure I will attract my share of it by the end of this piece, but please hold your fire for a moment and consider whether investing such seriousness in Justin Brownface might in fact be distracting from more serious and intractable cases of racism. This article in The Tyee lists a dozen examples of racism that are far more worthy of discussion than Trudeau’s 20 year old party photos. Incarceration rates and the number of children in foster homes, both of which are disproportionately high for indigenous people are two good examples.

Actually, that’s a false equivalence. The high indigenous population of our prisons is not the same kind of injustice as what Trudeau did. It is something else entirely. Both masquerade under the word racism, but they are otherwise completely different issues. One is an example of structural oppression. The other is a display of prejudice. The challenge is that the structural issues — the racism that is serious, worth discussing, and hard to solve — are less photogenic, and therefore less media friendly, than our Prime Minister in costume.

What’s wrong with this? Well for starters, the photos are an obvious dead cat. This being an election, it’s no accident that they emerged in the middle of it. They were timed to embarrass Trudeau when it would hurt him the most. Global News even quoted Andrew Sheer as the source for the video they released.

I have to wonder what the dead cat is distracting us from. Who is responsible for throwing it on the table in the first place? Aside from the obvious political damage to Trudeau, what else are they trying to achieve?

The situation feels a bit like revenge porn: Trudeau has been caught on camera with his pants down, and the evidence of his transgression is being published widely by someone with an axe to grind. Whoever tossed the dead cat has also crossed a moral line. Who is worse? If we extend the revenge porn analogy, the publisher is the true villain, but in our situation I suppose it depends on how serious we think Trudeau’s crime is.

So how serious is it? Earlier, I called it a display of prejudice to distinguish it from structural racism. Prejudicial racism is the racism we think of intuitively: Treating someone differently based on the colour of their skin. Prejudice is person to person; there’s a perpetrator and a victim. It’s not clear to me the Trudeau’s actions — or brownface in general — qualifies as prejudice. Who is the victim? The two smiling Sikhs who Trudeau has his arms around in the photo? Granted, he’s dressed as an Arab, not a Sikh, but there doesn’t seem to be much cultural tension in evidence. Perhaps there’s an offended Arab off camera, though putting it like that seems mildly prejudicial in itself, as though it were a stereotypical trait of Arabians to be offended.

Two real Sikhs and one fake Arab.

Offended Arabians aside, it doesn’t seem like brownface fits easily into the box of prejudice, and if the racism isn’t structural and it’s not prejudicial, then what kind of racism is it? At risk of exposing myself as a non-expert in racism, the best answer I can come up with is that the history of blackface in America has been generalized and exported. As I understand it, blackface was a theatrical practice that was problematic for at least three reasons: It allowed white performers to keep black ones out of the entertainment industry and reinforced segregation, it promulgated false stereotypes about black people, and it appropriated black culture to mainstream American culture.

The first reason clearly does not apply. The context is a party, not a performance; Trudeau isn’t putting any actors out of work, whatever the colour of their skin. The third doesn’t seem relevant either. It’s hard to be definitive from a photo alone, but the costume is so clownish it’s hard to imagine it’s appropriating anything. Only the second seems remotely applicable to Trudeau’s situation. He does seem to be reinforcing a certain false image of Arabians, but again, it’s so obviously cartoonish that it’s hard to take seriously. If I’m not mistaken, he’s dressed up as Disney’s Aladdin, which does have an issue with promulgating stereotypes, but that makes Trudeau more of a patsy than a perpetrator of racism. I think the worst that can be said of him is that he’s participating in a flawed aspect of American culture, which we have also adopted in Canada.

I don’t think it’s fair to eviscerate Trudeau for participating in American culture, even if that culture is a bit racist. Participating in culture is what people do. It’s automatic and habitual, and it seems unfair to attribute malice or poor judgment to Trudeau for acting within those cultural norms. It may have been deserving of criticism when it happened twenty years ago, but it isn’t enough of a skeleton in the closet to be worth bringing up so long after the fact. In this situation, the culture was more problematic than the person. I do think this is an excellent opportunity to have a discussion about how that culture might be racist, and that discussion is happening. But, I don’t see how 20-year-old brownface photos belong on the list of factors that should influence how we judge our politicians (and, by extension, how we vote).

The age of the photos is important. I wonder if these photos would have attracted a similar reaction back in 2001 when they were taken? I was in high school in 2001. I would say it’s a near certainty that something similar went on at my high school. Does that mean we were more racist back then? Maybe. Or maybe our ideas about racism have shifted.

As it happens, I can recall a halloween in Grade 2 where I went trick-or-treating in brownface. I dressed up as Prince Caspian — a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. To the best of my knowledge, Lewis never specifies the good prince’s race, though culturally I think we can assume he is Christian and English. That means I (or perhaps my mother) added brown skin as a feature of the costume. What did it mean for me to do that? Was it racist then? Is it now? It’s hard for me to fit this situation into the racism box. I get zero for three when I consider the three factors I identified earlier: I wasn’t appropriating culture; the character I played was very much within my own cultural background (English). I wasn’t perpetuating stereotypes; if anything I was breaking stereotype by implicitly recognizing brown skin as belonging within a white literary world. And I definitely wasn’t taking jobs from non-white actors.

Perhaps I’ve missed something, or perhaps I need a lecture about white privilege, but I’m unable to find the racism in my brownface costume in no matter how I squint at it. I see it as something different: An expression of that great Canadian value, multiculturalism. I was taught that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the American melting pot because we celebrate our differences, rather than expecting newcomers to assimilate. The Canadian way is to have multiple cultures, not to homogenize them all into one. That’s a very high minded difference, and perhaps more idealistic than the reality in both countries, but I think it means something, and I think that something is important in evaluating both Trudeau’s behaviour and how we think of brownface in general.

That something is this: Celebrating our differences means more than just staying in our cultural lane. It’s not enough to just acknowledge our differences and say your skin is brown, mine is white, and can’t we all just be who we are? If we are to truly celebrate those differences, we need to understand what makes them worth celebrating; we need to experience first-hand what it’s like to wear somebody else’s skin.

Which brings me to brownface. I don’t know why I decided Prince Caspian had brown skin. But I do know that I was playing a character, and in doing so, I was learning what it was like to be someone else. That’s what dressing up is about. Did I learn anything about what it was like to have brown skin? Probably not, but the point is that skin colour was a way to make myself not me. The potential for learning was there. And that potential disappears if we consider it racist to play at being someone else.

If we are to be multicultural, we need to be able to share culture with each other. We need the freedom to adopt new bits of culture from people who are different from us, and we need the openness to be honest about how we perceive cultures that aren’t our own, even when those perceptions are negative or skewed. How can we learn from each other if we are not permitted to share how we see each other?

To me, this makes the Canadian context for brownface different from the American one. Blackface in America meant whitewashing black culture so it could be safely considered part of the mainstream (cultural appropriation). And it created a caricature of black culture that did not allow outsiders to truly understand the black experience in America (stereotyping). Brownface in Canada lacks such a specific history — our opinion of it is extrapolated from the American context. How would it look if we interpreted it in the context of Canadian multiculturalism rather than American history?

For one, cultural sharing works differently. Multiculturalism means there is less urgency for the mainstream to own all of its cultural practices. Canadian culture is fundamentally one of borrowing, and we like to acknowledge and celebrate the original source. And, while we are certainly not immune to stereotypes, our assumption that having multiple cultures is a normal part of being Canadian does mean we are used to dealing with differences, and that makes us conscious of when we do not have the whole cultural picture.

That’s a very black and white picture, if you’ll pardon the expression. Canada is not a multicultural utopia, and America is certainly more diverse than the myth of the melting pot would suggest. To some extent, both stories apply in both places. But, if the ideal of multiculturalism has any power at all, I think it’s worth noticing that brownface doesn’t have to be racist. And, if we believe in multiculturalism, we should also believe that acknowledging and talking about our differences can be healthy. Taking on someone else’s appearance can be done to mock and offend, or it can be done to learn and communicate. Or, it can simply be done in play.

In Trudeau’s case, it seems to have been mostly play. His brownface was not done maliciously, nor was it intended to offend. His costumes are cartoonish to the point of mockery, and I think if the photos have genuinely caused offence (and not just partisan self-righteousness), that mockery is the reason. It’s not hard to see the photos as disrespectful.

But I think we have now answered the question of how serious Trudeau’s crime is: Not very serious. Whoever leaked his photos for political gain deserves a harsher judgment than Trudeau himself. Of the ways his actions could be construed, racist is only one of multiple possibilities, and, if we choose to believe in the ideal of Canadian multiculturalism, it’s not the most salient one.

Singh, Sheer and May debate who is the least trustworthy leader

One of the major lessons I learned from the election in 2015 is that policy matters less than the trustworthiness of the people we elect. As much as I believe we need good policy and a vision for the future, what we need even more are politicians who can react and respond with integrity and make decisions that reflect both the values they represent and the promises they made during the election campaign. A plan is important, but not as important as voting with integrity. The nuts and bolts of being an MP has much more to do with sitting on committees, listening to constituents, and learning the issues thoroughly than it does executing a grand plan. A leader who pushes through their grand vision without consulting citizens or other MPs is an autocrat, not a democrat, no matter how impressive the plan.

Election season kicked off with a debate hosted by Macleans and CityTV just a day after the writ was dropped. Thanks to last election, I’ve been following Canadian politics fairly closely the last four years, and I have a fairly good working knowledge of the current issues, and, especially, how the various party leaders have been behaving before the election campaign started. I listened to the debate bearing in mind the lesson I learned: I was paying less attention to the policy promises than I was to how the leaders conducted themselves. I was asking: Do I trust the leaders, are they acting with integrity, and do I believe they would make good decisions if they were in power?

Biases

Before I write about the debate itself, I should mentioned the preconceptions I started with:

I voted for Harjit Sajjan in 2015. Who? Our Minister of Defence of course! Oh, you didn’t know who our Minister of Defence was? Ok, I voted Liberal. Strategically. And then I immediately regretted it.

If I hadn’t voted strategically, I would have voted Green thanks to the immense amount of respect I have for Elizabeth May. During the 2015 campaign, I managed to see every leader except Harper speak, and May was the only leader who actually said anything. I believe her when she talks, and she can speak with great knowledge and specificity on virtually every issue in parliament. Needless to say, I’m predisposed to think highly of her in this season’s debate…

Given my strategic vote, I should point out that I’m also predisposed not to trust the Conservative Party. Harper left a scar that hasn’t healed yet, and Sheer has not endeared himself to me with his behaviour since he became leader. I had respect for Rona Ambrose (Who? The interim Conservative leader after Harper resigned and before Sheer was elected), but if there’s one defining feature of Sheer since he took leadership it’s this: He’s been relentlessly searching for any and every scandal he can pin on Trudeau. His anti-Trudeau strategy has defined virtually every statement and vote he’s made in parliament since he became leader in 2017. His leadership marked a distinct shift from a Conservative Party that was interested in working with the sitting Liberal government to one that opposes and attacks whatever the Liberals are proposing, regardless of whether it would be good conservative policy. In other words, Sheer has been in campaign mode for two years already, and his campaign has consisted almost entirely of attacks on Trudeau.

The Debate

The debate was jointly hosted by Macleans and CityTV — both owned by Rogers if you care to know whose corporate media line they are peddling. Macleans, the wonky establishment political magazine, was presumably responsible primary political content: the host, the questions and the structure of the debate. CityTV, “local” news station across all of Canada provided the television infrastructure and presumably also the analysis (I use the word loosely) from various talking heads and assorted people “on the street”.

The host was boring, dry, and started by reminding people that, here in Canada, we vote for MPs, not a Prime Minister, and definitely not a president. I liked him, because he actually took the debate seriously intellectually — perhaps the only person involved who did. And, in contrast to the debate in 2015, the questions he asked were specific, genuinely difficult, and tailored specially to the leader he asked. I think it helped. Unlike 2015, where none of the leaders said anything of substance whatsoever, this debate did have moments that required the leaders to show they knew what they were talking about, and, although there was plenty of deflecting and answering different questions from the leaders, there were also a few moments where there was <gasp> actual debate.

By contrast, the political analysts and talking heads (who took up a not insignificant amount of time between each section of the debate) were, without exception, vacuous and inane, and actively encouraged to be so by hosts that would cut off whoever was speaking after their designated 15 seconds of airtime (perhaps 30 for the so-called panel of “experts”).

The worst of this was a group of six chiefs and a grand chief from Enoch Creek First Nation who were asked to comment on the Indigenous section of the debate, and then repeatedly and rudely interrupted by the host to let them know that they had to hurry. It was clear enough that they were there to represent the Indigenous voice, but not to actually use it. I would have been insulted.

To be fair, they were given more time to speak at the end of the debate. The mic was given to the Grand Chief, who made a brief comment along the lines that every issue is an Indigenous issue, and then the mic was quickly passed between the remaining chiefs while the host asserted that they must agree with their Grand Chief without allowing them to say more than “yes” or “I agree”.

Almost as bad was the data analyst from Google (why was Google invited to offer analysis on the debate?), who accidentally demonstrated how irrelevant the debate was by pointing out that, during the debate, Trudeau (who was not present) was being Googled more than any of the other leaders. Strangely, the trending search for almost every leader seemed to be some variation of “How tall is <political leader>”? Clearly, the debate did not have any effect on what people were searching online (perhaps because the few people who watched the debate were busy … you know … watching it).

Justin Trudeau

This is a short section, because Trudeau was a no-show. The debate left his podium empty on camera, and cut to his rally in Edmonton a couple times to give him a token presence. I guess Trudeau figured we already know what he’s like, so we didn’t need to hear him give canned answers to questions that are designed for political theatre. Smart man.

Andrew Sheer

Mr. Sheer repeatedly confirmed my preconception of him by answering every single question he was asked with some variation of “don’t trust Justin Trudeau, he will make you poor”. He did a better job than any other leader of avoiding / ignoring the questions he was asked and staying relentlessly on message.

If I didn’t already follow politics, and if I was already inclined to dislike Trudeau, Sheer made a superficially good case for voting Conservative rather than Liberal. He came across as inoffensive, intelligent, and reasonable. Also, completely unable to converse outside of his preassigned talking points, or address direct questions, whether they were asked by the host or the other leaders.

He didn’t seem to care what the other leaders had to say; invariably he would simply answer with a talking point, whether or not it had anything to do with the subject at hand. Clearly he’s had some excellent media training, but to my mind, media training is not among the qualifications I expect in a Prime Minister. I thought Elizabeth May summed up his attitude quite nicely: “I will consult with you ’til you agree with what we’ve already decided to do.’” That was in reference to his approach to Indigenous consultation, but I think it would apply equally well to consulting citizens or other MPs.

Sheer has a salesman’s talent for making his policies sound like the only reasonable option. Also, a talent for disconnecting his sales pitch from the actual policies he is selling, with just enough plausible deniability that you technically can’t say he’s lying about them. If you don’t think about them they sound pretty good. If you do think about them (or have prior knowledge of what he’s describing), it’s clear he doesn’t want to describe them honestly.

I have a couple examples of this. The first is a variation of the same cutting-taxes-will-make-you-richer theme that has become so definitely conservative. In Sheer’s words: “when you’re talking about adding tens of billions of dollars, $43 billion dollars to the costs of government, that all comes from somewhere, that comes from the economy. That means that there is less prosperity and less growth, less economic activity that lifts people out of poverty.” In other words, tickle-down economics. It sounds reasonable coming from Sheer’s mouth, regardless of the fact we’ve been operating with this economic logic for the last 40 years and we have definitely not lifted people out of poverty. The idea that good government means maximizing GDP (“the economy”) and that somehow this makes everyone richer is believable when Sheer says it, and it requires a fairly high level of external knowledge to understand why it’s not.

The second is Sheer’s environmental policy. For a moment, he made me believe that he actually has one. He says two impressive things: He prefers regulation of heavy industry to the carbon tax that exempts the heaviest polluters. This is a fair criticism mixed with fairy dust. It’s true that some of the heaviest polluters (like concrete plants, or steel refineries) have license to pollute more under the current carbon tax. But the “regulation” he refers to is a plan to force polluters to spend a certain percentage of their revenues on R&D for pollution reducing technologies. Technically, yes, that’s regulation. But not an effective one. Left unsaid is the absurdity of thinking that R&D alone, without any sort of emissions cap, will somehow convince heavy industry to actually pollute less rather than using R&D to wring more production out of the same amount of pollution.

He also makes a good pitch that climate change is a global problem (it is), and therefore Canada’s strategy should be to reduce pollution globally rather than focusing on our domestic emissions. Sounds great, but … uh … how does Canada reduce emissions in other countries when we can’t even reduce them in our own? By selling them “clean” natural gas, which will displace dirtier sources of energy. This suffers a similar problem to his R&D regulation: It will add supply to the global market, which will drive prices down, and the result will be more energy consumed overall (i.e. both the natural gas and the dirtier energy sources will end up being burned).

Jagmeet Singh

Singh is a relative unknown, selected as NDP leader without having a seat in parliament. After a recent by-election, he is now MP for Burnaby-South, which makes him a local. I was quite impressed by his genuineness when he was campaigning for NDP leadership, and I gained a huge amount of respect for him seeing him handle a nutcase who ambushed him with a torrent of anti-Islamic epithets (Singh is Sikh). He also wasn’t shy about speaking frankly and directly about inequality or any number of other issues. Unfortunately, after he became leader, his direct honesty disappeared. I think the NDP’s media training team got to him…

I was hoping to some of that honesty come back in the debate, but I was disappointed. Although he speaks from the heart, I never got the sense that he was giving his real opinion. He frequently answered questions in the form of a story (usually about some unfortunate mother and child that he’d met), but he never gave the impression that he knew the issues well enough to propose a specific policy solution. Many of the policies he described were actually a value statements, which left me feeling that his heart is in the right place, but he has no idea how to actually turn those values into action.

For the most part, he was too vague to take seriously. The most concrete policy he mentioned was the combination of universal pharmacare and extending the health care system to include dental care. Sounds good to me, though May caught him off guard by citing the $30 billion cost for dental care alone (the number came from her own costing of the policy). Singh didn’t seem to know how much the policy would actually cost, which seems like an important thing to know.

His most memorable talking point was “tax the rich”. He talks passionately about inequality, but beyond asserting the problem, he came up pretty thin in terms of what to do about it. He didn’t describe how he would change the tax structure to fix the problem except in the most general of terms.

The only other memorable moment for me was a disagreement Singh had with Sheer, where Singh came out against trade deals (“fair trade, not free trade”), with Sheer advocating strongly for free trade with the US. Immediately after, the host asked the leaders about Brexit (apparently, Sheer was pro-Brexit “before it was cool”), and the positions reversed: Sheer touted economic independence, and Singh was the one talking up the benefits of open trade. Neither leader seemed to have any awareness of contradicting themselves or of the fact that they had just taken each other’s positions.

Elizabeth May

May’s intelligence and deep knowledge of everything that has happened in government has always impressed me. Of the three leaders, she was the only one who could speak in any detail about current government policy or why and how it needs to change. She frequently corrected other leaders when they made mistakes about those policies (or their own previously stated positions on those policies).

I was disappointed to find that, while that knowledge is still there, the media trainers seem to have gotten to her as well. Compared to past debates, she was less focused on policy and spent much more time attacking other leaders and their policies. By my judgment, her attacks hit harder than the other leaders’ did, because she was more specific and on point about their failings. Her knowledge and intelligence still helped her in that regard, but she was using them to tear down other leaders (including Trudeau) rather than to advocate for unique Green policies.

I give her credit that, unlike the other two leaders, she made a point of answering questions clearly and directly before she moved on to her talking points, but like the other leaders, she too had an agenda.

On that agenda? Universal basic income, free tuition, and a cap on carbon that is in line with what is actually necessary to keep global warming below 1.5ºC. She doesn’t think small. And, despite Sheer’s criticism that her ideas are pie-in-the-sky expensive, her platform is costed by the PBO (Parliamentary Budgetary Office), which means the financial numbers aren’t just pulled out of a hat. I would love to see some deeper financial analysis, but a leadership debate isn’t the place for that.

As you would expect of a Green, May spoke frankly about the seriousness of climate change and some of the concrete effects that we can expect. She was blunt about the seriousness of the issue and how far from addressing it properly we are. How blunt? “The only thing that can outpace the climate disaster as a threat to human survival is nuclear war.”

Part of the reason she is thinking big is because Green environmental policy starts with what is necessary (as determined by what scientists say is necessary to hit the Paris target of 1.5ºC below pre-industrial levels), and then works backwards to figure out how that target can be achieved.

If you take the environmental crisis seriously, it’s hard to see how you could countenance any other method of planning, but my impression was that Conservative and NDP policies (not to mention the Liberals’ current policy) were based on what they thought was politically feasible, not what is environmentally necessary. In the end, May comes across as advocating for a plan that is impossible but necessary. I’d vote for that and see how far we get, but it seems unlikely most other Canadians will share my sentiment.

Takeaways

I won’t be so trite as to declare a winner of the debate, but I’m sure it’s obvious which leader impressed me the most. I read some of the punditry around the debate, and there didn’t seem to be a consensus that one leader did better than the others, so perhaps all the debate did was reinforce the biases I started with.

If you truly want your own take, go watch the debate yourself. But, when you do that, here’s my request: Bear in mind the lesson I learned in 2015: Ignore most of the policy, and pay attention to how the leaders behave. Decide which one you trust the most, and vote for that one!

Documentaries, Respect, and Cultural Appropriation

I think it is valuable for us as documentary makers to dig deeply into the idea of cultural appropriation.  We are both creators and users of culture and it behooves us to think about what we are doing when we create our works.

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that, although I am about to seriously question the legitimacy of treating culture as property and the idea that interacting with culture artistically requires free, prior, informed consent, by endorsing UNDRIP, our First Nations have stated clearly that they expect both of these things as part of reconciliation.  And thus, I believe it is incumbent on me and and anyone else who wishes to see reconciliation to respect these wishes, even if we disagree with them.  I believe that respect overrides purity of principle.

I will start by critiquing the idea that it is useful or valid to think of culture as property, even communal property.  The idea of property — of ownership — is most fundamentally a right to exclude others.  It is the right to control that piece of property to the exclusion of anyone else.  The idea of culture is opposed to this:  Culture is, at its most basic, simply the act of sharing within a group.  But the act of sharing is fundamentally opposed to the idea of exclusion.  If one person claims to own a part of culture for themselves, it ceases to be culture because it is no longer shared.  Culture cannot be property — the moment someone claims it as theirs, they destroy it as culture.

Things work differently at the level of community.  In some sense, a group can “own” a piece of culture because membership within that cultural group is determined by how much they share within that group.  To some extent, a cultural group is defined by the things that they share with other members, to the exclusion of anyone else.  Thus, cultural appropriation is a threat because it threatens the identity of the group.  But “property” is the wrong analogy here.  In the case of physical property, it is easy to exclude others because physical things must exist in one place and time, and thus it makes sense that only one person can have it, but culture is not like this.  Culture is like an idea:  When you share it, it spreads and gets bigger and more powerful.  When you share an idea, it does not leave your mind and reappear in someone else’s; it is present in both minds.  Culture is also like this, if you share it with someone outside your group, you expand the group to include that person.  Cultural appropriation is not theft — the original culture is expanded, not lost when it is shared outside the group.  Cultural appropriation is a threat because it dilutes the identity of the original group, not because the group is losing anything.

The real issue behind cultural appropriation is a loss of autonomy, not a loss of culture.  Thus, a central concern is consent — prior, free and informed.  It’s quite understandable that a group under threat would want to control how its culture gets shared, and requiring consent is a mechanism for doing this.  It’s also unrealistic.  It’s unrealistic because of how culture spreads:  one person shares with another person, who shares it again, and again, and again.  Culture is viral, it inevitably expands geometrically, and it is inherently uncontrollable.  Moreover, attempting to control it — attempting to treat it as property — can have some quite adverse effects.

Those effects include prejudice and xenophobia, and, more directly relevant for us as filmmakers, censorship and loss of freedom to comment on and critique anything to do with the culture.  The problem is that claiming ownership of culture misunderstands how a group identity is created.  A cultural group is not defined by the external cultural artifacts that they are sharing; it is defined simply by the fact that the group is sharing things with each other.  A strong cultural group is constantly generating culture in many different ways, and that culture is constantly fluid and evolving.  But, if instead, the group becomes identified not with itself, but with certain cultural artifacts of its past, we quickly end up with prejudice.  What is prejudice if not the misidentification of a group with some of its most salient external attributes?  Identifying first nations as “the people who wear feather headdresses” is racist, but that doesn’t mean that feather headdresses don’t play a cultural role or have history within (some) first nations.  It just means that first nations aren’t exclusively defined by that particular culture, any more than they are defined by any of their other culture.  First nations *create* their culture, and because they keep creating it, they continue to be first nations.  And that is true regardless of what happens to their past culture, or who else makes use of it.  By asserting ownership of culture, our First Nations are at risk of creating too strong an association of the group with their cultural artifacts, and the end result is likely to be prejudice and a fragile group identity, not a strong culture.

Cultural appropriation is sometimes regarded as an issue of consent.  But, by framing the issue this way — of who gets to control access to culture — we perpetuate the victimhood of our first nations by assuming that their culture is so fragile that it will collapse if it is not rigidly prevented from leaking out into the wider world.  This is true whether we are first nations ourselves, or outsiders who are trying to respect our first nations.  Either way, the idea of consent gives the illusion that culture can be controlled, and when that illusion is broken, victimization is the result.  The reality is that culture spreads wildly and uncontrollably.  Popular ideas and popular art, wherever they originate, spread because they are powerful, and they do so without regard for cultural boundaries.  Consent is an attractive illusion because it appears to offer a way to protect the oppressed, but, ultimately, it cannot offer the protection it promises.  In reality, it is an attempt — an understandable one given our collective history — at enforcing cultural purity, and that should worry us.

That idea that a group such as a First Nation can consent (freely or otherwise) to how others interact with, talk about, or view their culture is a fiction, and because it is a fiction it is dangerous.  It is a fiction because — really ­— how can anyone control what others think of them?  The art of trying to do so is called PR, and as media makers, I hope we are all intimately aware of what PR can and can’t do.  I also hope it is obvious how dangerous it could be to view PR through a moral lens.  Can you imagine if, say, Monsanto could legitimately claim that they were entitled to consent before Marie-Monique Robin made The World According to Monsanto?  Could CitizenFour have been made if Edward Snowden has asked for the NSA’s consent before he made public their inner secrets?  Obviously, neither Monsanto nor the NSA are a cultural group, and thus to consider them in terms of “cultural appropriation” is strange, but the principle not so different.  Whether it’s Monsanto or a First Nation, it’s a bad idea to grant any group a moral right of consent to how they are viewed.

How then should we, as non-First Nations, view cultural appropriation?  I come back to the idea of respect.  Using First Nations culture without asking is rude.  Using it to make broad statements about First Nations without consulting them (and making sure you understand the culture you are using) is insulting.  It may not be morally wrong to do these things, but there is a social cost to be paid just the same.

Sometimes, there are good reasons to ignore social niceties — sometimes outside criticism is legitimate, and it needs to be made without asking.  But, when we criticize, we need to recognize that that affects our relationship, and, for the criticism to be effective, an open and trusting relationship needs to exist before the criticism is made.  Right now, that relationship with our First Nations is tenuous, so we need to be extra cautious in how we make criticism.  At the same time, sometimes we use First Nations culture in ignorance, or sometimes their culture has expanded into greater Canadian culture and it’s not clear where the line is.  In those cases, I think it’s polite to ask forgiveness (since offense may have been taken), but I also think it’s reasonable to expect some flexibility from our First Nations here:  We live together, and our cultures are going to blur a bit.

It’s not the end of the world if I, as a person without First Nations heritage, eat some bannock and call it skookum.  I think it’s unlikely, but perhaps my doing that without permission will insult someone.  If it does, it’s incumbent on me as a human being to recognize that and make amends — even though I believe there is no cause for insult.  To build a relationship, someone has to reach out first, and if we are too worried about principles and being right, nobody will reach out.  That’s what Reconciliation is:  A relationship between those of us whose families came here from elsewhere, and those with whom we share this land.

Review: The Clean Money Revolution by Joel Solomon

The idea of “Clean Money” is an attractive one.  We are intimately familiar with the harms that concentrated money can cause, whether it’s the corrosive effect of money on politics, the ability of large corporations to buy legal immunity by dragging out the legal process indefinitely, or the fact that the financial system is set up to benefit the 1% at the expense of the 99%.  We are less familiar with the ways that concentrated money can be used in positive ways.

Joel Solomon’s The Clean Money Revolution provides passionate proof that money is a tool, and it’s the quality of the people using it that determines the quality of the effects it has.  It’s at once a moral plea to those with money to recognize the power that money grants them and a memoir of Joel’s successes in living that morality by helping others put their money (and Joel’s) to good use.

It’s hopeful and inspiring in its attempt to envision a world where our financial and social systems evolve gracefully into a more sustainable, stable, just future rather than collapsing around our ears into chaos and anarchy.  In a world where corporate money ensures that governments stay impotent against the various social and environmental crises that might cost those corporations their quarterly profits, the idea that Clean Money used well can be a force for positive change is a refreshing, if idealistic vision.

And, thanks to Joel’s intimate knowledge in the arcane arts of investing and business, it’s also a seductively convincing vision.  Joel knows how money works.  He knows how to use it wisely, and he’s also not afraid to point out how it can be (and is being) used badly.  He’s candidly aware that the current level of socially aware investing is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of capital that is pulling in the other direction.  And yet, his book is the Clean Money Revolution, and he believes that the revolution has started.  He believes that, at the very least, there is a path forward that will shift vast amounts of money from the old, profit-at-any-cost mentality to a new, more sustainable and socially responsible mindset.  And he believes that this transition will be shepherded by the Millennials as they take over management of the funds from the Boomer generation.  As a Millennial, I find that flattering.

Unfortunately, I also find it unrealistic.  And, to be honest, on an intellectual level at least, I think so does Joel.  He comments that if we use only our intellect, we have no reason to believe we will be able to avoid the social and environmental collapse that is the consequence of unsustainable use of resources and misuse of money.  To be successful, his revolution requires spiritual fortitude and a deep sense of purpose, both on a personal level and in our culture.  Wise words from a member of the hippy generation:  Change comes from the heart, not from the head.

I have two major criticisms of his book, both of which are intellectual.  Thus, I hope they will be useful for understanding the flaws in the book, but not fatal to the intent of it.

The first major criticism is that it relies on those who have wealth to develop the spiritual conscience necessary to invest their wealth responsibly.  And it’s not just some of the wealthy.  It must be all of them, or at least a large majority.  There must be a cultural shift among the very wealthy that pushes them in the direction of “Clean Money”.  He believes this will happen when control of the wealth shifts to Millennials.  In other words, it will happen through inheritance.

Unfortunately, a key part of Joel’s own relationship to money is defined by the fact that he inherited his wealth young, while he was still in his idealistic 20’s, and before he had been fully groomed as an heir to his family’s fortune.  And, most of the other Clean Money investors whose stories he tells share similar backgrounds.  There is no reason to expect that most of the Millennial heirs to the $100 trillion that will change generational hands will inherit young.  There’s much reason to think that, in addition to inheriting wealth, the rarefied group of multi-million dollar heirs will also inherit their parents’ strongly profit-driven values.  Sadly, a plan that counts on the majority of those in power to naturally use that power for good is not a very good plan.

The second criticism is perhaps the more serious one.  Joel correctly identifies wealth inequality as one of the most serious issues that must be solved.  It’s an issue that directly relates to money.  Yet, the book advocates that wealthy investors can have it all:  They can invest Clean Money and still profit at the end of it.  Perhaps they do not take as much profit, but the model is still a capitalistic one in which investments are ultimately expected to pay off monetarily.  Such an approach cannot solve the issue of inequality — not alone at any rate.

The reason is structural.  It’s a fundamental law of money that wealth generates money.  This is the way that the wealthy have lived for generations, and it’s the reason why the wealthy stay wealthy.  Once you have a pile of wealth, you hire a money manager to invest the wealth and you live off the profits of the investments.  The bigger the pile of wealth, the bigger the profits you have to live on.  This is the principle that endowments, hedge funds and foundations operate on:  The principal is invested, and only the profits are spent, thus ensuring the perpetual financial security of the person or organization that owns the wealth.  It’s a sound financial strategy.  Unfortunately, it’s also the fundamental cause of wealth inequality:  The more quickly wealth gets accumulated, the less that wealth is available for everyone else.

Joel has lots to say about this.  He writes extensively about spending down the principal, about ensuring that foundations invest their principal as Clean Money, and about divesting money that is supporting harmful organizations.  Unfortunately, as important as all those things are, they are still all in service of profit:  Endowments are still intended to preserve wealth, and even the strategies for spending down principal involve making investments that are ultimately intended to recoup with a profit.  No matter how well the money is invested, it’s still expected to accumulate over time.

Such an approach is impossible.  Inequality builds up pressure, and historically the only ways that pressure is released is through appropriation (as in the French Revolution), warfare (as in WWII), or inflation.  Of these, inflation is the safest — though still tumultuous — option.  Only when the rate of inflation rises above the rate of return that endowments generate — only then does the distribution of wealth become more equal:  The inflation in everyone else’s wealth out-paces the natural tendency of wealth to grow.  In such a situation, the return on investment is no longer “profitable”, because the real value of the wealth at the end of the investment is less than the value that that wealth would have had if it has just been left on its own.  The Clean Money Revolution does not solve this problem — wealth inequality is inevitable as long as our central banks maintain policies that are designed to minimize or prevent inflation.

Thus, the Clean Money Revolution is not the panacea that Joel hopes it is.  It’s not enough of a revolution. We cannot escape the financial, environmental, and social crises that face us solely through enlightened investment.  There is more to the story (there always is).  But … intellectual flaws aside, there is still much value in stories of hope and inspiration that Joel writes about.  Just because Clean Money is not the solution does not mean it cannot be part of a solution.  Investing generously and selflessly is certainly better than investing blindly and selfishly.  Even if we must shrink our collective wealth for the sake of surviving sustainably, the organizations and institutions that help us live sustainably must still be grown — and will inevitably produce financial profits while they grow.  Clean Money must be part of that growth.

On a more personal level, the book is not just inspiring in general; it inspired me to seek out the environment in which Joel nurtured his skills with Clean Money:  Hollyhock.  As a documentary filmmaker, I’m driven by the desire to create social change.  And I’m also painfully aware of how difficult it is to find money to support that social change.  And, once I’ve created a documentary, I’m aware that it needs to be seen by the people with the power to help create social change:  People with money and big ideas.  If nothing else, Joel’s book has convinced me that I can find all of those things at Hollyhock.  I’ve signed up for a workshop at Hollyhock called Story, Money, Impact.  Here’s hoping that my journey there helps me find people who believe in Joel’s vision:  The vision of Clean Money.

Who gets to own our culture?

In honour of Techdirt’s World IP Day “anti-contest”, I’ve decided to write a few words about the relationship between copyright and culture.

Specifically, I’m interested in the question of who gets to own our culture, because copyright is the mechanism we use to answer that question.  Copyright — intellectual property — is the idea that when you create something — a photograph, a song, a film, or an essay like this one — you own that creation by virtue of being its creator.  You are free to publish it or to hide it away, to be magnanimous in sharing it with the world or to set up a toll booth and charge people for experiencing your creation.  All of those things belong to you by right — and that right is called copyright.  Thus are the seeds of ownership planted for all of the cultural artifacts that are created.

Culture is a different beast.  It’s also a very fuzzy concept.  When people talk about culture, they never quite seem to know exactly what they mean.  We often seem to think it has something to do with the arts — the “cultural industries” are the ones that produce things like literature and art and movies.  Or, perhaps it has something to do with having a shared language or ethnic background.  Or food.

What I mean by culture is this:  Culture is just the things that people share between them.  And, to the extent that they share things, they share a common culture.  Culture is the lingua franca that binds a particular group of people together, whether that group is a nation, a particular ethnicity, a company (as in “corporate culture”), or just a small group of friends.  Culture is made of the common experiences that bind a group together.  Whatever group it is, the most salient feature of culture is that it is shared within that group.

That feature puts it in direct conflict with the idea of copyright.  Because if culture is fundamentally about sharing, copyright is fundamentally about controlling who gets to share.  If you own the copyright on some cultural artifact — let’s say the new Star Wars movie — you control who gets to watch Star Wars.  By extension, that also means you control who gets to talk about Star Wars and what they are allowed to say about it.  Because, if you can’t watch Star Wars, you lose access to the culture that is Star Wars and the things you are able to say about it will be very limited.

In a very real way, owning copyright means owning a piece of culture.  And, with that in mind, let’s return to the question of who gets to own our culture.  Initially, copyright belongs to creators.  There’s an intuitive appeal to this arrangement; it makes sense that the originator of a piece of culture gets to own it.  But, in reality, it is not creators who own our culture.  In fact, much of the culture that matters — the culture that is shared widely enough to be known on a large scale — is owned by large media conglomerates.  Star Wars is owned by the Walt Disney Company, not by George Lucas.

Of course, saying that our culture is owned by giant media conglomerates is a gross over-simplification.  Copyright is automatic and universal, which means everything from the e-mail you wrote to your boss last week to Donald Trump’s latest tweet is covered under copyright as a potential cultural artifact.  And there are plenty of aspects of culture that are not covered under copyright at all — language and food being two obvious examples.

Still, there is something significant about the amount of control that media companies exert on our culture.  And that significance is evidenced by the phrase that I used to describe it.  Media conglomerates don’t just own a lot of culture.  They own a lot of culture that matters.  In crass corporate terms:  They make it their business to own culture that is worth a lot of money, and, if possible, to increase the amount of money that they can earn from that culture.  What determines which culture is worth money?  Or, put another way, what determines cultural value?  We’ve already answered that question:  It is the culture that is most widely shared.

That’s significant, because it belies the intuition we had about copyright belonging rightly to creators.  It’s not creators that create cultural value.  The value comes much more from the sharing than from the creation.  A moment’s thought will confirm this.  Of the immense number of copyrightable creations, only a vanishingly small number will gain any significant amount of cultural relevance.  Chances are, the e-mail to your boss has absolutely no cultural relevance, and neither does the gorgeous piece of art that you framed and put on your wall.  It is not the act of creation that makes culture; it’s what happens to that creation after it leaves the hands of the creator.

We are now in a position to answer the question we asked at the beginning:  Who gets to own our culture?  The answer is this:  The people who popularize it.  Media conglomerates end up owning a lot copyrighted culture because they profit from taking raw creations and promoting them to the status of culture.  And, generally, creators are only too happy to exchange their copyrights for money and a bit of cultural notoriety.

Having answered the initial question, we can now ask a deeper question, the real question, namely, if significant parts of our culture are owned by the media conglomerates that popularize them, is this a desirable state of affairs?  And the answer, I think, is an unequivocal no.

This new question — the real question — is a question about power.  The question is about who has the power to determine what is culturally important and which voices get heard.  And the reason why the answer is no, the reason why we do not want media conglomerates to own our culture is because their choices about what is culturally important are dictated by what makes them the most money, not by the merits of the cultural artifacts that they promote.

When Disney decides to finance another Star Wars movie instead of a biting satire of the political system, that decision is driven by money, not by artistic merit or cultural need.  And, as a business, that’s their prerogative.  But, just because that decision is good for Disney does not make it a good one for our culture.  And our culture is more important than Disney’s bottom line.  As a culture we need to ask:  Who do we want to own our culture?  Who gets the power to decide what is culturally important?  We can do much better than outsourcing this power to giant media conglomerates.  But … how?

They key lies in the mechanism for owning culture:  Copyright.  By allowing companies to buy and concentrate ownership of copyright, we have turned culture into a commodity, where one piece of culture is as good as another as long as it can be bought and sold.  In such a market, it is money that dictates cultural importance, not ideas or artistic merit.

What is the alternative?  One possibility would be to attach copyright to the creator permanently, to make creators the permanent owners and guardians of the culture they create.  The appeals to the intuition that creators should own culture, and perhaps they would do a better job of cultivating culture than corporations.  But, such an arrangement ignores the fact that cultural value truly comes from sharing, not from creation.  If we are to respect that fact, our culture must be owned by all of us.  Which is to say, it should be a commons, owned by no one.

If we want our culture to be a marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas rise to the top and gain the most cultural resonance, we cannot allow it to be a marketplace of commerce, where the most successful ideas are the ones with the most money behind them.  To achieve that, to de-commodify our culture, we cannot allow culture to be owned.  Once culture can be owned, it can be bought and sold.

To do that, our system of copyright must change drastically.  Instead of being a system of ownership — a system of intellectual property — it must become a system for protecting the integrity of our culture.  If copyright is about who has the power to shape our culture and whose voices get heard, it needs to vest that power in the people who are best suited to creating and improving our culture, and it needs to concentrate that power in the hands of the people who have the best track record of creating positive cultural change.

This means creators.  But, not just any creators; it means creators who drive our culture forward.  Rather than rewarding every act of creation with ownership, copyright should reward those who create culturally significant works with the resources to continue creating them.

The mechanism for this is not ownership but reputation.  Rather than controlling who is allowed to access culture, copyright should encourage culture to be shared as widely as possible.  After all, culture is built on sharing.  But, whenever a piece of culture is shared, whenever the stock of that culture begins to rise, that culture should bear the imprint of its creator, and the creator should be indelibly identified with that creation.  In this way, the creators of the most resonant pieces of culture will become culturally significant along with their creations — and will be in a position to reap the benefits.

Copyright would thus become a system for ensuring that social power flows to the most culturally significant people rather than to people who are famous for being famous.  Imagine a world where we had never heard of Paris Hilton but Marie Curie had attained equivalent status and social power.

Achieving such a system in today’s political environment seems … unrealistic to say the least.  And, exploring such a radical change to copyright in depth would like require a book or two (or a documentary).  So, in envisioning this new kind of copyright system, I do not expect to make it a reality.  But, in all the reading I’ve done about copyright over the years (and it’s quite a lot), I’ve often felt that the problems of copyright have been much better explained than any sort of vision for what copyright could be.  Perhaps that’s why copyright seems to have progressively become worse for culture rather than better.

So, in honour of World IP Day (though probably not in the spirit intended by WIPO), I hope I have articulated a vision of copyright that could enliven and enrich our culture rather than restrict it.  As imperfect as it is, at least it holds a glimpse of a better system.