Happy Thanksgiving

By far my favourite thing about being a Canadian living in the United States is the fact that I get to celebrate two Thanksgivings. Which I have done without fail since I moved three years ago. This could be perceived as greed on my part – twice the stuffing, twice the turkey, twice the pie – but really I think it just makes me twice as thankful.

So Happy Thanksgiving America. I’ll be watching football and counting my blessings.



Feel-Good Hockey Moment

I am a Montreal Canadiens fan which means that I am required to actively root against the Toronto Maple Leafs at all times. Which is why I am so conflicted about the feel-good moment that transpired at Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators.

The mic cut out toward the end of the US national anthem but the Leafs crowd rallied to finish singing the anthem.

So as much as it pains me to say it, great job Leafs fans. Not only did you know all the words to the anthem but you sounded damn good singing it.

(Oh and sorry you were demolished by Nashville that game but not really. Go Habs go.)

A Tale of Two T-Shirts

A few days ago, Sally Kohn published an article in The New Republic that discussed what she called feminist overreach. Using several recent examples, she argues that many feminists online are too quick to call sexism, thus detracting attention away from real feminist issues like pay equity and reproductive rights. One example she highlights is the criticism Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sustained after he explained why he wears the same, plain t-shirt every day. Zuckerberg responded, “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”

Some, including New York Magazine’s Allison P. Davis and Mic’s Ellie Krupnick, put forth arguments that Zuckerberg’s response was evidence of casual sexism. I agree with some aspects of both of these articles – notably Krupnick’s reminder that women are multi-layered and can care about both fashion and more pressing issues like foreign policy – but in general I prefer Kohn’s analysis that it’s more likely that Zuckerberg was expressing his distaste for fashion, not offering an underhanded criticism of women. I would have no problem hearing an argument that caring about the clothing we wear is not frivolous, but that’s a separate issue that both men and women can engage in. And I also have to ask Zuckerberg’s feminist critics, is it not equally sexist to equate fashion with women? Do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that casual sexism isn’t an important issue because it absolutely is. I’m suggesting that Zuckerberg’s defence of his t-shirt is not obviously casual sexism.

Kohn’s concern is that this kind of feminist overreaction will usher in a “cry wolf” phenomenon that risks de-legitimizing feminist voices. She worries that we may see a “return to the period of the sidelined, shrill feminism” and that the stereotype of the “hypercritical and humorless” feminist only gains credence from such overreactions as the critique of Zuckerberg’s t-shirt response.

When I first read her article days ago, it resonated with me as a proud feminist that is sometimes concerned that we are not always striking the most productive tone. I had planned on writing about Kohn’s article and then the new “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was released and I had to set it aside temporarily to rant about Geldof and African stereotypes. In the meantime, another shirt caused controversy in feminist circles and I suddenly found myself on the other side of my previous argument.

Last Wednesday, a team of scientists landed a robot on a comet. It was a really cool moment that was blighted by the fact that physicist Matt Taylor wore a shirt while addressing the media that featured scantily clad women in suggestive poses. Most of the criticism online focused on two related things. First, that the shirt reinforced the notion that women are unwelcome in STEM fields where they are already underrepresented. Second, that Taylor likely knew he would be addressing the media thus his choice of shirt is deliberately provocative at best and overtly sexist at worst. Kind of makes you wish he shared Zuckerberg’s gray t-shirt philosophy, huh?

Taylor apologized, and I’m inclined to believe him when he says that he made a mistake and he is sorry. Still, I have been reflecting on why it is that I think the criticism over Zuckerberg’s t-shirt comment was overblown but the criticism over Taylor’s shirt was apt. Both criticisms are related to the perceived subtext of the offending shirt decision. Both criticisms pointed to casual sexism as the offense. But only in one case do I think that casual sexism was actually present. It’s just my opinion but I’m sticking with it.

Which brings me to my main point. Trying to define casual sexism is a tricky thing to do. Some instances are overt but many are not. Often it comes down to how an action or statement is perceived which is inherently subjective. As such, constructive feminist dialogue is key and I think we need more of it as we walk this fine line. Sexism is a serious offense and should be perceived as such. For this reason, we feminists have to weigh the charge of sexism carefully before we accuse someone of it. We have to maintain vigilance but also avoid crying wolf. We have to vigorously oppose casual sexism where it exists but we have to be equally vigorous in our determination that it is casual sexism. This is no easy task. Two people can disagree over whether something is sexist and both be feminists. We need to remember this and push the conversation forward with integrity.

One of my favourite conversations regarding the Taylor shirt debacle was written by Connor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. It’s fictional but I would like to think that it’s a good representation of the type of conversations that feminists can have both with each other and with the rest of society. Kohn states in her article, “Feminists have to not just hold society accountable but hold each other accountable to keep mainstream feminism from losing its edge.”

As a feminist mantra, I think it’s a good one.

A Canadian in America

As a Canadian living in the US, the question I am most frequently asked by friends on either side of the border is some variation of “What’s the biggest difference between Canada and the US?”

I have found this a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It’s something I’ve reflected on quite often and yet I still can’t point to ONE thing that represents the BIGGEST difference between Canada and the US. Sure there are plenty of little things, like the fact that these silly Americans keep confusing Smarties and Rocket candy and referring to toques as beanies. But when asked this question I inevitably scramble for an answer and know that my inability to come up with something illuminating is a disappointment to both myself and the person asking.

If anything what I find most interesting, and most frustrating, is the fact that both Canadians and Americans often fail to appreciate the fact that the neighbouring culture is not homogeneous. I know this is an obvious point that is easy for most people to accept but for some reason that hasn’t stopped intelligent people from asking the question. I suppose it’s only natural to seek a tidy understanding of another culture, especially as it relates to your own. Unfortunately, I have yet to uncover a parsimonious answer that would reveal the crucial distinction between these otherwise similar countries. It will probably come to me the moment I publish this post.

If anything, it is something that Canadians and Americans have in common that has struck me the most. Both often fail to appreciate the significance of regional differences in the other country. For example, the answer to the question “Is the Canadian climate the same as Alaska’s?” is that well, it depends on where in Canada. Come to think of it, it also depends on where in Alaska you’re referring to. Similarly, the answer to the question “When you moved to the US, were you immediately struck by how obese everyone was?” is no, not really. Especially because I initially moved to Colorado which is one (if not the) fittest American state. And yes, I really have been asked both of these questions.

When asked nearly anything about Canadian or American culture, climate, or politics, my answer is consistently “Well it depends on where in [insert relevant country here] you’re referring to.” It’s not a very satisfying answer and it’s dripping with the academic’s go-to response to nearly any query (“it depends” or “well, it’s quite complicated”). So to play along, I will answer some of the Canada vs. USA questions I have been asked most frequently, nuanced analysis be damned.

Yes, Canada is cold. But the border separating Canada and the US isn’t a climate force-field and while it amuses me to refer to my homeland as “The Land Beyond The Wall” the truth is that average provincial temperatures are likely similar to the average temperatures of the state that province borders. For instance, Washington state and British Columbia province are rainier and milder than New England and the Maritimes. Funny how geography and meteorology coincide like that. (Note: being super northern, the territories are something of an outlier. But even then, the climate is a bit more diverse than “all cold, all the time.” Though it’s still pretty damn cold from what I understand.)

Yes, generally speaking Canadians love hockey. However, I personally know a decent number of Canadians who do not like hockey. I also know plenty of rabid American hockey fans. Have you seen the Chicago Blackhawks fandom? Those crazies are everywhere. (Said with love, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are both on my fantasy hockey team.)

No, not all Americans are gun enthusiasts but yes, some of them are. I haven’t looked recently at data on how opinions regarding gun rights break down regionally but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were stark geographic divides. Beyond regionalism, I have also noticed that opinions regarding gun rights vs. gun control tend to be more complex than most Canadians realize. I know where I stand on a personal level but as a matter of public policy I find it a very tough issue to parse through. I don’t want to get into that debate here (at least not now) but I will say that living in the US has given me a new perspective on just how complicated the issue is.

Yes, some milk in Canada comes in bags. It’s not that big of a deal. And yes, when I see milk in a carton in the US I am able to correctly identify it as milk.

Yes, American politics is nuts. The dysfunction in Congress is real and makes a lot of people from both parties want to bang their heads against a wall. But gridlock and partisanship are pretty standard in modern democracies and it’s built into the system of checks and balances that underpins the American political system. I’m not saying that voters shouldn’t push for productivity. I’m saying that those Canadians quick to criticize the US should remember that our political system is also far from perfect. Also, both countries have regional differences (keeping with the theme here) that make governing effectively quite tricky. Red states vs. blue states. Quebec. Alberta and Texas oil. Like I said, it’s a bit nuts trying to resolve all of those issues.

No, Canadians do not eat poutine all the time. Not even in Quebec. Similarly, the American diet does not consist exclusively of hamburgers.

Yes, everyone loves maple syrup. Or at least they should.

‘Tis the Season… to rage against “Do They Know It’s Christmas”

It snowed overnight in Ann Arbor, which reinforced the television ads’ reminder that Christmas is coming. Another sure sign of the season is that “Do They Know It’s Christmas” begins playing relentlessly on the radio and in shopping malls. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original 1984 single, Band Aid has released a new version of the hit song. Featuring Ed Sheeran, One Direction, and, of course, Bono the song offers updated lyrics and a promise to fight Ebola in West Africa.

Those who know me, know that I despise “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The original song is deeply patronizing and its lyrics are downright offensive. It labeled its would-be benefactors as deprived, helpless, and doomed. It encouraged people to “pray for the other ones” and to “thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The 2014 version has updated some of these lyrics. We’re still supposed to “pray for the other ones” but the “thank God” line has been replaced with “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear.” I’m sure Geldof and company are quite pleased with this particular revision as it’s more Ebola-appropriate but without losing any of the drama of the original line. At the end of the song, the Band Aid 30 logo appears with the tagline “Buy the song, stop the virus.” I’m sure public health workers in West Africa will be thrilled to learn that the solution is so easy. Although Nigeria and Senegal must be wondering how they managed to contain the virus’ spread without adding the song to their music library. (Am I being too sarcastic? I warned you I was rageful.)

Like its predecessor, this song is condescending and willfully promotes a White Savior complex that is as harmful as it is ignorant. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” relies on caricature to turn a complex public health emergency into a shiny, feel-good holiday moment. Like the Band Aid single and the Live Aid concert before it, the initiative appears to substitute authentic African input for degrading, stereotypical images of Africans. It would be one thing if the song did this but actually raised money for local Ebola-fighting initiatives. But it’s not clear, at least to me and a few others, that this is the case.

Laura Seay at The Monkey Cage offers a concise take-down of the song and I highly encourage you to read it. I hope she and The Washington Post will not mind if I summarize her main points here. Please go read the original article.

  1. Yes, they know it’s Christmas (in fact, it’s a public holiday in Sierra Leone and Guinea)
  2. The song is demeaning
  3. It mostly ignores Africans and their efforts to fight Ebola
  4. We don’t know where the money is going

The last point references an often overlooked criticism of the Live Aid 1985 concert. There are allegations that the funds raised by the concert were misused and may have indirectly contributed to the death of thousands of Ethiopians when the money was used to purchase weapons. There is also the question of whether or not this type of celebrity-fueled fundraising is beneficial to African development in the long-term. Such considerations are vital to effective humanitarian aid but I don’t see any evidence to suggest that the latest version Band Aid has evolved any further than replacing already demeaning lyrics with slightly different demeaning lyrics.

Despite the fact that they don’t seem to have learned from their mistakes, I am not accusing Geldof, Bono et al. of anything but having the best of intentions. But that’s not good enough. True compassion is more than simply having a desire to help others. It must be combined with critical thinking. It must include a sincere effort to truly do good. Even if that means that your effort ends up being less ostentatious than you originally planned. That doesn’t mean that compassion can’t be fun or even a little flashy. I think the link that I share at the end of this post demonstrates that. But compassion without critical thinking risks being self-indulgent and ineffective. And that’s what I think “Do They Know It’s Christmas” represents.

As I bring my Grinch-like post to a close, I wanted to mention that it’s easy to beat up on this type of thing without offering a solution, so I will avoid doing that. Instead of buying the single, maybe consider making a donation to Africa Responds, a collaborative effort by African organizations to pool resources in response to the Ebola outbreak. I’m also a fan of Médécins Sans Frontières, which is a Western organization but has a long, reputable history and tends to work very closely with the local population. These are just two off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions, I’m sure there are tons of other, equally fantastic organizations doing great work in the public health arena and beyond.

I would also encourage you to check out Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway, a brilliant piece of satire and a really creative, valuable initiative. If I could have one Christmas wish this year, it would be that this song eclipses “Do They Know It’s Christmas” as the holiday single that dominates the airwaves.

Update: November 18, 2014

Band Aid 30 has been trending on Twitter and I have been reading through the responses. It’s still incredibly popular and I’m sure the song is selling millions, but I was really heartened to see the amount of critical engagement on social media. I won’t link to all of it here but I’m retweeting lots of stuff on Twitter so feel free to follow me there.

I did want to share this though as it’s really special. I was unaware of it as I was writing my post yesterday and I want to take a chance to correct that. A group of African musicians came together and recorded a song about Ebola. The song offers Ebola education and all of the proceeds are going to Médécins Sans Frontières. It’s what “Do They Know It’s Christmas” should be: local initiative, clear financial support for a reputable organization, oh, and it’s super catchy. Check it out.

Remembrance Day

It is fitting to write this blog’s inaugural post on Remembrance Day. For the past several years I have been a student of international relations, war, and conflict. The academic study of these subjects is pragmatic and so the horrors of war are often pushed out of view in favour of utilitarian analyses of tactics and strategy. This isn’t a bad thing. Until such point that war is eradicated (and you’ll have to forgive my cynical opinion that such a point isn’t exactly imminent) it will be necessary to think and strategize about war and the way it is conducted.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the human element of war. Remembrance Day provides us with an opportunity to remember that it is human beings – our friends, families, and fellow citizens – that are charged with the task of executing the policies and strategies devised by others. In most cases these men and women are asked to risk their lives in order to carry out their duties. In many cases they pay the ultimate sacrifice.

The human element of war extends to the other side of conflict as well. The asymmetrical nature of 21st century conflicts means that civilians consistently bear the brunt of violence. Those who study war from a distance, like myself, have the good fortune of examining the consequences of warfare without living them. It can become too easy to think in terms of collateral damage, in terms of outcomes. Remembrance Day offers the chance to reflect on the experience of war as best we can.

This year I am thinking of three things in particular:

The fact that without the brave members of World War II’s Allied Forces, and the Canadian Forces specifically, I would not be here today. My grandparents lived in the Netherlands and their hometown of Nijmegen is situated close to the German border. It was the first Dutch city to fall under occupation. My Oma still has the small notebook in which she collected the signatures of the soldiers who stayed at her father’s inn after they had liberated her city and her country. They immigrated to Canada in 1952 and my mother was born a Canadian citizen. So was I, and so was my brother and my sister.

Photos below of Oma and Opa, 1947.

Oma1947 1948. My parents on Toos's 21st birthday

I am thinking of the families of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and how peculiar this Remembrance Day must feel to them.

And I am reciting in my head In Flanders Fields. We had to memorize this poem in elementary school and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s beautiful and haunting. I do, however, have one disagreement with the author. One line reads “to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.” This line has never sat well with me. With all due respect to Major John McCrae, I do not think the hands that he describes have failed. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to accept the torch and never forget.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Major John McCrae, May 1915

[Updated November 11, 2014: added photographs.]