The Book of Negroes: An Excellent Mini-Series and A Reckoning for Canadians

This evening I watched the final two episodes of The Book of Negroes mini-series BET. In another blog post I mentioned that I have read the book and I provided a brief plot summary so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here. Instead, I’ll focus on the significance of the story itself. The mini-series was very well done, the acting was wonderful especially by Aunjuane Ellis and the screenplay was quite faithful to its source material.

Having said all that, the thing I like most about both the novel and the mini-series is that it highlights a relatively obscure slice of history and provides a much-needed reality check to my fellow Canadians. I have found that as a country we can be somewhat smug on the topic of slavery. Though it is true that Canada does not share the same history with slavery as its southern neighbour, we routinely fail to recognize that our hands are by no means clean. Slavery was in fact practiced in new France and some early, prominent Canadians, including the founder of my alma mater, owned slaves. Yet this history is typically glossed over in Canadian classrooms. I recall learning about Canada as a promised land for slaves who arrived there via the underground railroad but never learning about the less savoury aspects of my country’s relationship with slavery.

To a certain extent, The Book of Negroes corrects that wrong. When the main character Aminata leaves the United States to settle as a free woman in Nova Scotia she finds that the “promised land” is not all that she and her fellow Black Loyalists expected. Though they may have been free from de jure binds of slavery, they remained second-class citizens in Canada by de facto forms of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and racism. Indentured servitude was common, few owned property, and hunger was rampant. The Book of Negroes depicts the white Birchtown population as being generally hostile to the newcomers and suggests that there was little opportunity for economic prosperity or justice in the British colony.

Though it is a fictionalized account of this history, The Book of Negroes nevertheless offers an important reminder for Canadians like myself that while we may not have the same history as the United States but we are not innocent. Deep, systemic racism existed then and exists now. The Book of Negroes acknowledges this fact beautifully and hopefully this well-crafted mini-series will awaken that consciousness within Canadians.

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The Deep Politics of Words

It’s been a couple of weeks since Jonathan Chait published his controversial and much-discussed piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” in New York Magazine. I read it – twice – and had many thoughts about it, many of which were contradictory. At the time I thought about writing a response to it but there was so much Internet noise related to the article – either blasting it or praising it – that it felt like a needless exercise. The TL;DR version of what I would have written would read something like this: I think Chait is touching on something that exists but I am not sufficiently convinced by his piece. The examples he offered weren’t very compelling to me and his meandering argument was not satisfying. I did feel, however, that there is truth buried deep in his article and I wish had been more thoughtfully teased out.

As someone who spends a lot of time (too much time) on social media I can assure you there is tons of outrage. It’s daily, it’s constant, and it’s exhausting. Determining if it’s legitimate is much trickier though. To underscore this point Slate curated a list of daily outrages for the year 2014 and it ranges from “righteous fury to faux indignation.” Many of the examples feel like moments when the benefit of the doubt could have been extended and you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the well-meaning person being skewered by strangers on the Internet for an accidental slip of the tongue. But there are plenty of other instances where the outrage feels justified. While the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media can sometimes be unnecessarily unforgiving, they have also brought to light subtle but harmful examples of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination that are seeped into the foundation of society. Finding the balance between these two poles is difficult and as someone who finds themselves in the space between the careless Chait argument and the virulent responses to his article I am glad that a debate  is happening because it is an important one to have.

Although the Internet is frequently outraged for any number of political and social reasons, often the specific dispute between the proponents and skeptics of “political correctness” is focused on language. As tense as the debate can be it’s a meaningful conversation to have because language is deeply political. If you don’t believe me, please go live in Quebec. I loved living in Montreal, I love French and am proud to be bilingual, but you can’t live there and not notice how political the relationship between Anglophones-Francophones can be. You can’t live there and walk away thinking that language doesn’t matter.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at a recent University of Michigan initiative. The University is spending $16,000 on an “Inclusive Language Campaign” which, as MLive reports, is “an awareness program to help students be more aware of the fact that different groups around campus interpret words and phrases differently.” In recognizing the diversity of the campus, the campaign hopes to acknowledge the power of words and discourage students from using language like “fag” or “retarded” or “ghetto.” I like the initiative. In the past I have been guilty of using such words thoughtlessly and have made an effort to stop. Finding alternative language is not only more respectful it’s also, quite frankly, not that difficult. But of course, the comment section of the article is riddled with complaints that kids these days should grow a thicker skin, this is tantamount to thought policing etc.

It’s easy to dismiss this type of initiative on the basis that it’s “PC language/thought policing” but really it’s about recognizing that language matters. The campaign does not suggest or introduce mechanisms to punish use of specific language and I don’t buy into a slippery slope argument in this case. While I am wary of overdoing the outrage, there is outrage on both sides of the “PC-language” divide. Plus, I think acknowledging the power of language is valuable. How you describe people and situations says more about you and your prejudices than it does about what you are trying to describe. Asking people to think before they speak isn’t about stifling speech, it’s about encouraging empathy.

My Problem With The Body Positive Movement

There’s a new kid on the Body Positive block. This Girl Can is a UK national campaign aimed at encouraging women of all shapes to get physically active. The blurb below their YouTube video (which has been viewed by over 5 million people since it came online two weeks ago) states: “This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”

It’s not a perfect campaign. The Guardian has some valid concerns, one being why are women being referred to as girls? And The Telegraph notes that middle-aged and senior women are non-existent in the ads. Its message also doesn’t feature any people with physical disabilities. Still, the campaign’s most redeeming quality is its focus on fitness. I’m on board with the idea it’s sending: that women of all shapes and sizes can and should learn to embrace fitness and the fact that their bodies allow them to. Plus they make it look like a lot of fun.

As a Body Positive message it’s a pretty good one because I’ll be honest, I have one big problem with the broader Body Positive movement: its focus on bodies at all.

Whether it’s buying into the “healthy at any size” mantra or spending a lot of time pinning “thinspiration” to a Pinterest board, the common thread is an obsession with women’s bodies and how they should look. As women, and even as feminists, we spend an awful lot of time telling each other what is right and wrong about how we view each other’s bodies. Placing such a high value on body image risks minimizing other characteristics – like intelligence, humour, compassion, courage – that frankly are more important.*

Interestingly, one of my favourite things that has ever been written on our cultural obsession with bodies was a post author J.K. Rowling made to her website several years ago. She has since revamped her website and the post is no longer there but I loved it so much at the time that I wrote it down. This anecdote is really illustrative of my problem with how we talk about each other’s bodies (a problem that I’m not sure the Body Positive movement effectively subverts):

“I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!”

She goes on to point out that:

“‘Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her… is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?”

When we care deeply about fat vs. thin we are by definition loading these terms with power and meaning. We are responding to insults about our bodies by trying to reclaim that insult and while the intention is good, the discussion still inevitably circles back to weight and how we should feel about it. It’s hard for me to see this as progress.

Take for example the recent Internet kerfuffle surrounding Tess Munster, a plus-size model who was recently signed to a major modeling agency. Her message is “eff your beauty standards” and predictably people are debating whether or not she is a positive role model for women or if she is promoting obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s the same old, tired debate that never reaches any meaningful conclusion or changes anybody’s mind. For the record, when I first read about Tess Munster my first thought was “Good for her.” My second thought was “Wow, she’s pretty. How does she do her eyeliner like that? How do I get my hair that shiny and bouncy?” I was still focused on what she looked like. Whether we view her positively or negatively we are all still obsessed with Ms. Munster’s physical appearance. We know very little about her as a person. This isn’t necessarily problematic as she is a model after all. Models make their living and become known to the world through their bodies. I just wish we knew more about the person we want to hold up as an example for women.

Similarly, the song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor was released this summer and hailed by some (though not all) as a Body Positive message. But the message of self-love still relied on the cliché that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” and “You know, I won’t be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll.” Once again we saw the conversation circling the same drain: “Real women have curves!” “You’re body shaming thin women!” “She’s promoting an unhealthy lifestyle!” “You don’t have to be skinny to be healthy!”

I’m not trying to skewer Meghan Trainor any more than Tess Munster. They are both women making their own choices about their careers and their bodies and all the more power to them. What I’m trying to do is examine our reaction to them and note that maybe we could empower women in a way that doesn’t focus on bodies.

I would love for us to teach young girls that not only should they love their bodies but that there are also more important things to worry about. I know this is idealistic and the valid counterargument is that since we don’t live in such a utopian society we should embrace body positivity. I acknowledge that point but question if we’re effectively counteracting all the nastiness related to the judgment of women’s bodies. I also wonder why we devote so much time to the subject when women still have to conquer major issues like reproductive rights and political under-representation. Sure, we are complex individuals capable of caring about multiple issues at once. But I wish the online debate about the best way to get women into political office (as an example) was even half as vigorous as the online debate about body image.

If we keep digging our heels into the superficial issues related women’s bodies (i.e. what they look like) will we be able to get out? Will we still be able to entrench within society an alternative idea – that bodies shouldn’t matter as much as character? These are not just rhetorical questions. I’m open-minded on this issue and keen to be educated. But every time I see something online – whether it’s body shaming or body positivity – I scream inside “Who cares?! We have more important things to worry about as women and as people!” So instead of screaming on the inside, I thought I’d work through my thought process here.

To respond to the question put forth by J.K. Rowling – yes, I think there are tons of things more important than one’s size. And I think most women and feminists would agree. Hence my issue with the Body Positive movement. It tries to re-shape the conversation about women’s bodies but why not actively work to shift the conversation away from bodies? That’s what I like about the Ask Her More campaign. It encourages the media to ask women on the red carpet about more than their appearance. It’s great that viewers can ooh and ahh over the pretty dresses (absolutely nothing wrong with that) and also learn more about the actress and her film/show/music. I wish this line of thinking would become more pervasive. Wouldn’t it be great if a little girl beamed with more pride when we tell her she’s smart than when we tell her she’s pretty? Wouldn’t that be the most positive kind of empowerment?

*Note: I know my “let’s just not focus on bodies” stance is not helpful for those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other body-related issues. But I have to ask, does the Body Positive movement help them? I’m not an expert so that is a genuine question. I am inclined however to think that such individuals would benefit most from treatment and care by a mental health professional, not an ad campaign.
Also, thanks to my super smart sister Christine Handrahan for her comments as I was writing this entry. All opinions remain my own.

Book Review: And The Band Played On

I finally finished the monster book And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. I say “monster book” because it was 605 pages of small print, jam-packed with anecdotes, statistics, policy analysis, and science. It was, however, an extremely readable and accessible book and the length of time I took to read it says more about the fact that I’m a slow reader than it does about Shilts’ skill as a narrator. He walks us through the arrival of AIDS to North America and chronicles the response from the medical community, the gay community, the media, and all levels of government. It is extremely interesting to read a detailed account of the disease’s spread and the medical challenges associated with its diagnosis and treatment. It is equally devastating to read how maligned and homophobic much of the response, or lack thereof, was.

Although his book is well-balanced it is not completely free from bias. He was, after all, a gay man living in San Francisco who would later die of AIDS. In his account of the fierce debate surrounding gay bath houses in San Francisco, for instance, it is clear which side he was on. Still, he supports his position with evidence and does an adequate job of representing the opposing viewpoint. Moreover, he stands aside and lets the voices of others make the strongest points for him. Some of the book’s most devastating quotes come from the people he interviewed.

Which brings me to another strong point in the book. Although Shilts does an admirable job of weaving science and politics into his comprehensive narrative, what makes his book so compelling is that it ultimately revolves around people. Early AIDS victims become more than statistics in Shilts’ book and he bears witness to the end of their lives with stunning honesty and empathy. The challenges AIDS activists and scientists faced, both with each other and with the outside world, are recounted with nuance. Shilts resists the urge to editorialize anyone into the role of hero or villain and we are thus left with the impression that the early years of the AIDS epidemic were as complex as they were confusing and frustrating.

And The Band Played On offers many takeaways but one that particularly stood out to me was how both fear of being perceived as homophobic and actual homophobia hindered a more productive response to the growing epidemic. This was further complicated by the fact that the gay community and gay rights activists were extremely divided on how to respond to pressing AIDS-related issues. Once the medical community established that AIDS (or more accurate HIV, though that discover would come later) could be transmitted via blood, there was a push to screen blood donors for the disease. Blood donation clinics were reticent to screen blood and deny gay men the right the donate blood for several reasons. They were skeptical of the connection between blood transfusions and AIDS, and did not want to cut off a vital source of blood donation (Shilts describes many gay San Franciscans as being especially “civic minded”). But they also expressed fear that the decision to not accept blood from gay men would be construed as homophobic. One report that emerged from a blood policy workshop stated that, “The quarantine of blood is an ominous first step towards further social, political, economic and even physical quarantine of a community already denied many basic civil rights protection.” (p. 326)

It is interesting to contrast this position with contemporary debate surrounding the ethics of banning blood donation by gay men. Today, blood tests can confirm whether or not an individual (gay, straight, or otherwise) has HIV and many argue that the policy of excluding gay men from donation on the basis of their sexuality is outdated. I’m inclined to agree with this contemporary argument but I note with some discomfort that I agree with Shilts that the ban on gay men donating blood in the mid 1980’s was a necessary policy that should have been implemented earlier. The idea of screening blood on the basis of one’s sexual history feels wrong to me, and yet I’m not sure there was an alternative at the time given the lack of blood test and basic understanding of HIV.

Of course, actual homophobia played a huge role in the slow response to the AIDS crisis. According to Shilts, the issue only gained traction in the media once heterosexual people began getting sick. Being an AIDS researcher in those early days also lacked prestige, to put it lightly. One researcher recalls a university dean remarking that, “At least with AIDS, a lot of undesirable people will be eliminated.” (p. 522) Government funding for AIDS was also dismally low during those early years despite the fact that the Reagan administration claimed AIDS was its number one health priority. Shilts also claims that when HIV testing became possible, members of the gay community were fearful that widespread testing would be akin to creating a government list of homosexuals. The government did little to assuage such fears when it failed to enact confidentiality measures. Apparently the administration felt this would be seen as “coddling” gays which was against their hard line.

Shilts’ account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic is a deeply important read that is made all the more impressive when you consider that it was written during those early years (the book was published in 1987). I learned a ton of interesting and often surprising facts about AIDS and its evolution as a social, political, and medical issue. Shilts was one of the few journalists covering AIDS at the time and, though we cannot say for sure, it appears that his dogged coverage of the crisis has ensured that key details about the early days of the epidemic were not lost. For this, we owe him our gratitude.

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Talking About The Efficacy Of Torture

The media is still buzzing with news of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program – or as it’s more commonly referred to, the Torture Report. Former CIA director Michael Hayden appeared on CNN to offer a heinous defense of rectal rehydration, among other things. Dick Cheney stated unequivocally on Meet The Press that he has no regrets regarding the program and that he would “do it again in a minute.” Cheney’s defense of the program rests mainly on his conviction that he has no problem with such “enhanced interrogation” methods “so long as we achieve our objective, and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.” It is frustrating that Cheney does not see the contradiction inherent in this argument. The report contests the idea that the CIA detention and interrogation program produced actionable intelligence. That is to say, it did not achieve its objectives. Presumably, Cheney has objections to specific interpretations that the report makes, thus justifying his position. But still, the findings of the report are corroborated by psychological and social science research that suggests that in general torture does not produce accurate results. (I provided just a few examples in a previous blog post.)

There are many who agree with Cheney and continue to defend the use of torture by the United States for reasons that I mentioned earlier. On the flip side, an equally vigorous debate has sprung up among those who are opposed to torture (both in general and in the specific case of the post/9/11 CIA program). This debate is concerned with what place efficacy has in a debate on torture. I have noticed several people on my Twitter feed are deeply concerned that we are even talking about whether such morally repugnant actions worked. They argue that this is beside the point because torture is morally wrong, against the values of the United States and thus it frankly does not matter if the program did or did not achiev its objectives. To focus on the efficacy of torture is a dangerous precedent that may validate an ethically questionable “ends justifies the means” attitude.

This perspective makes a lot of sense to me. Moreover, those expressing such a perspective are generally people whose thoughts and opinions I admire and respect. I still admire and respect these people, and read with interest most of what they post on Twitter (it’s why I’m following them) but on this point I have to disagree.

For the record, I agree with them wholeheartedly that torture is wrong and even if it had worked I would still be opposed to its use. But I have to concede that if we had solid evidence that torture worked, I think the subsequent “do the ends justifies the means?” debate is both unavoidable and, unfortunately, valid. When we talk about the Geneva Conventions, rights for prisoners of war, the distinction between combatants vs. noncombatants, and yes, torture, we are by definition engaging in a debate on where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour during conflict. That conversation is uncomfortable and unpleasant but deeply necessary. In order to shape the norms that govern war, we have to talk about why something is unacceptable. While I wish that the use of torture would cease on the sole basis that it is morally abhorrent, that hasn’t happened. The United States is party to the UN Convention against Torture but as we have learned that hasn’t stopped the United States from torturing people. Thus, the point that torture does not work is a boon to those of us who argue against it. As Dan Drezner commented in a Washington Post piece last week, “The trouble with debating torture’s efficacy is that if it turns out that information extracted from torture can be tactically useful, then advocates will be able to make their case more effectively in public discourse. On the other hand, if the debate takes place strictly on the moral and ethical plane, anti-torture advocates will feel on firmer ground.”

Yesterday, in an article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie discussed another reason why torture is difficult for the United States government to disavow for purely moral reasons. The nature of American public opinion with respect to incarceration and torture is largely retributive and punitive. This attitude was evident in the online conversation that occurred after the torture report was published. Many individuals expressed a profound lack of remorse for the tortured on the basis that they deserved it. It seems unlikely then that arguing against torture for moral reasons will succeed in changing public opinion.

It’s a bit depressing to think that we have to substantiate an anti-torture stance with empirical evidence but such is the case with polarizing issues. Sometimes setting emotion aside and dealing with the pragmatic is the only way to break gridlock since both sides usually believe they are in the moral right. The process of getting to policy that is both effective and morally sound can involve a lot of uncomfortable debate like whether or not an end justifies a means. In the case of torture, if it can be demonstrated that an end was not achieved at all, then perhaps we will have greater success advocating for its abolition.

I’ll Ride With You

It’s been a rough few hours for Sydney, Australia. Monday morning an Iranian refugee and self-styled Sunni cleric (with a long rap sheet) took a cafe and its occupants hostage. While the situation was unfolding, a social media movement also began to take shape. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou began trending on Twitter as Aussies offered to ride public transportation with those wearing religious attire in a preemptive counter to bigotry and Islamophobia.

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It apparently began when a woman noticed a fellow train passenger removing her hijab. She responded by reaching out to the other woman and offering to walk with her. Someone else offered to do the same on their commute and the hashtag was born. According to Twitter Australia, there were 40,00 Tweets within two hours and it has been growing since. I hope the movement isn’t purely viral and that those wanting or needing support on the streets of Australia today are finding it.

From my perspective, as I sit far away watching the news, it’s comforting to see such displays of empathy, solidarity and clear-mindedness as tragedy unfolds. It reminds me of the incident in Cold Lake, Alberta after the Ottawa shooting in October where community members came together to wash away hateful words that vandals had sprayed on a local mosque.

Of course, it isn’t the answer to radicalization or bigotry or violence. But it’s a much needed reminder that compassion exists, even in the face of such ugliness.