This Week's Conversations: Talking to Kids About Prejudice, Education Technology, Thundercat, Electoral Reform, Bissonnette and Roof, Migrant Rights, Bannon, and more.

A weekly conversation between friends.

How to Talk to Kids About Prejudice

By Ram Sankaran

The Political Wall Between My Father and Me by Tari Ngangura in the Globe this week is interesting on several levels. Paradoxically, many activist parents wish for their children to engage in less activism or less extreme activism so they can avoid pitfalls to their career and their general well being. However, what drew my attention in the piece, especially as a father, was the discussion relating to how immigrant or non-white parents teach children about race, as it is a subject I have ruminated on for some time.

In my own experience, from a young age, my brown immigrant parents emphasized to us that we were a minority; that there were disadvantages to this ("You will need to work twice as hard than a white person for the same job." etc.), and that the world was not a fair place for minorities or for poor people. Meritocracy was to some extent an illusion to present the image of a well functioning, just society. In reality, most of the more dire warnings did not come to fruition. While we had episodic racism (mostly the usual inaccurate epithets "Paki") directed at us, the system actually worked. We were able to achieve in our education and our careers, and have generally been fortunate in life.

Nevertheless, the words did stay with me. In my political life (largely confined to Twitter), I have always had a focus on racism, religious discrimination, and class issues.

Now that I am a father, I have used a similar approach with my own children. My warnings are not as stark or as dire as those of my parents. My toddler knows she is brown (although if you told her she was Pink several times, she might also agree). My son is of school age (Grade 3), and my approach with him has been to emphasize that he is brown, some people may not like him for that reason, and he has the right to protect himself as necessary to ensure he is being treated with respect. We have now moved on to me advising him that others should also be treated as individuals. When he hears Muslims or Jews or other people being disparaged because of their race or religion, he has the choice to speak up for them or stay silent (there is no obligation to act as a hero), but the choice is his and he can exercise it based on what he thinks is right. I am lucky that my son is such a warm, empathetic, and perceptive boy who can receive this information with the right degree of seriousness, but also humour.

It has surprised me that when I discuss my approach with a segment of other parents, they have found it unsettling.

Isn’t he too young for that? What if he doesn’t understand? I want to talk to my kids, but am going to wait until they are older.

There is merit to these counter-arguments. I think they come from a good place, namely from the idea that kids are not born as prejudiced people, but are taught prejudice by adults. It is a point that really can’t be and shouldn’t be argued.

That being said, I have noticed the people most unsettled by my approach usually come from the same background: white, socially liberal, fiscally conservative. This particular political identity has always raised more questions for me than answers. In a sense the identity indicates what someone is against (racism, sexism, homophobia, big government) then what they are actually for. One could certainly hold these views while not actively engaging in any particular project or active involvement. Nevertheless, many of these people are active. Most of these people are warm-hearted and involved in the community usually with charities, sit on boards for arts foundations, volunteer and do things for others on a personal level. They are the type of people that aren’t comfortable when others are too opinionated (why are they in my social circle again?); or when conversations get overly political.

But we are living in a toxic environment when it comes to racial animus and religious discrimination. There is a lot of dirt out there and if we, as a society, want to stay as unified as possible, everyone will need to get their boots dirty.

The instruction from my parents on matters of prejudice allowed me to navigate my own life and find constructive outlets for the pressures on me and on others. That being said, given the emphasis provided by my parents, I also grew up with and to this day have blindspots. For instance, the plight of aboriginals and the discrimination experienced by LGBT persons were issues never raised or discussed in our house. There were hollow spaces in terms of my learning and understanding of these issues from a young age. Those empty places were filled in by my culture and surroundings. I didn’t have the intellectual framework or even courage at a young age to deviate from the prairie culture around me on these issues. As a result, and to my discredit, I was a homophobe and at best was indifferent to aboriginal issues and at worst a racist like many of my contemporaries. To this day, I have to do more intellectual work to weed out my own biases on these issues to find the framework to understand these marginalized groups with the empathy and consideration they deserve.

Where vacuums exist, something inevitably fills in the gaps. Did I mention these were toxic times? There has never been a time in my adult life where hatred, venom and violence have been such a large part of the public discussion. They are affecting all marginalized groups, but, in particular ethnic and religious minorities, in my opinion.

We spend a great deal of time, appropriately in my view, ensuring that our children/adolescents understand the nature of human sexual activity (“the birds and the bees” talk). It boggles my mind that we as parents don’t think that talk about race or religion discrimination (and there could be other issues, but at this time those are my major preoccupations) is similarly appropriate of frank and semi-formal discussion with our kids, regardless of our race.

Just as we know that work ethic, discipline, and being respectful of others are things we can teach to our children (as well as racist and discriminatory beliefs), we need to start seeing as anti prejudice as something we need to constantly learn and re-learn and teach and re-teach to our children. We cannot simply passively rely on our culture and institutions to do this for us. We cannot assume a hands off approach will automatically result in the next generation being a more unified society.  It will be uncomfortable and tentative. We do not have a singular approach to transmitting information and there is no vaccine. But the risks at this time are very high, and so is the payout. Have the talk.

For once, I agree with the conservatives: it starts at home.

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Why Do Schools Need So Much Data?

In a continuation of our semi-regular columns on techno-dystopia (see 1, 2, 3), this week I bring you excerpts from a recent speech by Audrey Watters, an outspoken critic on issues related to education technology:

“One of the “hot new trends” in education technology is “learning analytics” – this idea that if you collect enough data about students that you can analyze it and in turn algorithmically direct students towards more efficient and productive behaviors, institutions towards more efficient and productive outcomes. Command. Control. Intelligence. 
….
The risk isn’t only hacking. It’s also the rather thoughtless practices of information collection, information sharing, and information storage. Many software companies claim that the data that’s in their systems is their data. It’s questionable if much of this data – particularly metadata – is covered by [privacy acts]. As such, student data can be sold and shared, particularly when the contracts signed with a school do not prevent a software company from doing so. Moreover, these contracts often do not specify how long student data can be kept.

Again, the risk isn’t only hacking. It’s amassing data in the first place. It’s profiling. It’s tracking. It’s surveilling. It’s identifying “students at risk” and students who are “risks.”

I swear to you this: more data will not protect you. Not in this world of “alternate facts,” to be sure. Our relationships to one another, however, just might. We must rebuild institutions that value humans’ minds and lives and integrity and safety. And that means, in its current incarnation at least, in this current climate, ed-tech has very very little to offer us.”

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Thundercat, Smooth Jazz Virtuoso

You may not have heard of Thundercat, but he’s all over the place. That bonkers bass solo in Flying Lotus’s Never Catch Me*? That’s Thundercat. That nearly sub-bass line in Kendrick’s “Wesley’s Theory” — the one that sounds like it might damage your stereo speakers? That’s him, too.

As a bassist and a producer, he has also left indelible marks on recent releases by Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, and Ty Dolla Sign, to name just a few. He’s released three strange, but critically-acclaimed solo albums, and is set to release a fourth this month.

Admittedly, his music is not for everyone (neither are his videos). When I first saw him live, opening for Flying Lotus, his band assaulted the crowd with 40 minutes of chaotic, noisy, jazz/funk/metal-fusion. Thundercat spent most of the set absolutely shredding over compound time signatures and atonal jazz scales. Much of the crowd was dumbfounded. Some covered their ears.

Fortunately, in addition to his virtuosity, Thundercat is also a talented songwriter and vocalist, who over the years has polished his sophisticated take on neo-soul and funk. More recently, he has undertaken the bold experiment of revitalizing the ever-lampooned sounds of ‘smooth jazz’ from the 70s and 80s.

His new single, from his upcoming album Drunk, represents the pinnacle of this experiment. Featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (!), “Show You The Way” has to be one of the goofiest and yet most satisfying throwbacks in recent memory:

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Dear Elizabeth May

I can’t say I was surprised when the Liberals announced there would be no further action on electoral reform. It was always going to be a long shot, and, in this time of turmoil, it’s hard to fault the Liberals for viewing it as too politically risky.

Unless of course you think politicians should act as selfless representatives who act only in the best interests of the people, and the people in turn will celebrate and re-elect them for this behaviour.

Perhaps it’s this type of thinking which led Elizabeth May to make her tone-deaf remarks on Wednesday regarding the decision. She emotionally declared that she was “deeply ashamed” that our “feminist Prime Minister... threw two young women cabinet ministers under the bus.” and “with Le Pen and Trump, … We are in a time of dangerous politics. You must never do anything as a politician who understands what’s at stake, you must never do anything that feeds cynicism.”

Speaking as a somewhat young person, this is not what is feeding my cynicism at this point. Honestly, it’s May’s inappropriate accusation of sexism and references to Le Pen and Trump that are. It’s out of line.

This is the kind of language that contributes to radicalizing our politics, because it dismisses the reality of them completely. Politicians act in ways that will get them re-elected, and as long as they act within the laws and norms of our system, we accept that this is a limitation of democracy. It’s a pragmatic system, and our approach to politicians should be as well. So let’s save insinuations of sexism and breaking of norms and values for times when it’s actually happening, not over a political situation that has nothing to do with the fact that the ministers are women, or in any way threatens our democracy. Our democracy is still functioning, unlike our friends’ to the South.

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Vancouver's Bubble

Vancouver has had an especially bad year with the opioid crisis currently confronting Canada. Out of the 914 people that died in B.C. in 2016, 215 were in Vancouver.

The drug supply is partly to blame. More than 80% of Vancouver’s drug supply is thought to be tainted with fentanyl. Fentanyl is a 100 times stronger than morphine.

There was a significant increase in overdose deaths since October 2016. Carfentanil —  an opioid 1000 times stronger than morphine — may be a possible reason. Carfentanil was found in 57 of 1,766 specialized urine tests conducted over two weeks in January in treatment facilities across Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Prior to this, authorities were unable to test for Carfentanil.

The story of people dying from fentanyl or carfentanil-related deaths is still seen as a problem affecting addicts living in the inner city. People are often surprised to find out that the crisis is impacting people beyond areas like the Downtown Eastside, and even non-opioid drug users. This narrative helps to separate the drug crisis from the rest of society, normalizing it.

On a recent visit to the city, I met people carrying naloxone who’d never used drugs before. There were women with stores in Gastown, the business district next to the Downtown Eastside, who’d used naloxone for people who had overdosed outside their stores. They have become part of the army of bystanders that are helping save people from overdose deaths.

But the real heroes of the crisis have been drug users and community organizers in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. The Overdose Prevention Society that was started by Sarah Blyth responds to hundreds of overdoses every month.

Travis Lupick tells the story of a shadow health-care system that has slowly developed in Vancouver since an overdose epidemic swept into British Columbia in 2011. People living in SROs (Vancouver’s infamous single room occupancy hotels), have set up naloxone dispensaries from their rooms. They stock naloxone kits and help bring back people from the brink of death on an hourly basis.

Doug Nickerson, a 58-year old man living in Surrey, B.C., single-handedly has reversed over 113 overdoses over the last four years.

Groups like VANDU are finally finding themselves at the center of attention from governments and media. An entire community is dying off from this drug crisis. It’s time that the people at the frontlines are recognized, consulted, and supported on the work they do best. Recognizing that the drug crisis an issue that affects everyone, not just the vulnerable, is a step in getting the support it needs.

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Charleston and Quebec: The Similarities Between Roof and Bissonnette

It’s hard not to draw similarities between Alexandre Bissonnette and Dylan Roof. Both were young white men from stable, middle class backgrounds drawn to radical White supremacist ideology that resulted in horrific acts of terror. Bissonnette directed his violence against Muslim congregants of a Quebec mosque, while Roof targeted worshippers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, a potent symbol of African American identity in the southern United States. Both men staked out the places of worship that they planned to attack, even speaking with congregants, and in both cases shot their victims while they prayed with their eyes shut.

As the courts in the United States consider whether to impose the death penalty on Roof, Jelani Cobb explores the significance of the act on the African American community in South Carolina, and around the United States. What is fascinating is that Roof is represented by Canadian-born American attorney David Bruck, an anti-death penalty legal activist, who has famously argued that “the imposition of capital punishment, a practice that reinforced the value of the lives of white victims over those of black ones, is as troubling as violent crime itself,” due to its racist and uneven application.

But there are tensions within Bruck’s forceful critique of the death penalty in the context of a man who murdered Black parishioners in what many consider to be the most significant African American church in the United States, which has played a critical role in the emancipation and civil rights movements from its founding in 1816 until today. In fact, Roof chose to attack the church for that precise reason, and has attempted to use the trial to defend his attack as a promotion of his racist ideology. However, polls in South Carolina still show that African-Americans favour sentencing Roof to life in prison rather than imposing the death penalty, while the vast majority of Whites prefer the death penalty in this case (the difference perhaps reflects a personal understanding of the criminal justice system, and how it discriminates against African Americans with harsher sentences, including the death penalty, for the same crimes committed by White Americans, particularly, and constituting ‘The New Jim Crow’).

Bissonnette won’t be subject to the death penalty in Canada, but as the six counts of first-degree murder that he has been charged with proceed to trial, I will be keeping an eye on whether Bissonnette will use the process to promote his ideology like Roof attempted to do so in South Carolina. I will also be following the response of the Muslim-Canadian community, as it assesses how well our judicial system is equipped to address hate crimes of this nature and the individuals who commit them. And if the words of Imam Hassan Guillet at the funeral of three of the victims of the Quebec attack are any indication, it will consist of both justice and compassion for all, including Bissonnette.

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What Does Bannon Really Believe?

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Stephen Bannon — the former Breitbart editor and chief of the Trump campaign, now the President’s senior strategist and chief counselor. How much power does he have, and how much control over Trump? And, perhaps more importantly, what does he actually believe in, and hope to accomplish?

Most are quick to paint Bannon as a brilliant villain pulling the strings from the shadows, or a cunning Machiavellian consul, who flatters his master only to deceive and usurp. Here, he is characterized as a man who wants to destroy the Republican party and replace it with a nationalist economic populist party like the far-right ones in Europe. Here, he is characterized as a dangerous radical seeking to disrupt and tear down the liberal order.  He is a voracious reader, who devours works of history and political theory “in like an hour." His belief in an inevitable existential conflict between the West and ‘Islamic fascism’ is well-documented, and helps to explain the hard-line immigration policies that Trump has rolled out in the early days of his administration.

He’s also painted as a brilliant strategist — “a skilled practitioner of dialectical engagement” — with “complex views on capitalism”. Unlike Trump, he is an avid reader, whose tastes overlap considerably with those of white nationalists.

If all of this is true, we may be in serious trouble.

Fortunately, I came across an article by Ronald Beiner — a professor we studied with at University of Toronto. A Hannah Arendt scholar and an expert on civil religion and political philosophy in the 20th century, old Beiner doesn’t take threats to the liberal order lightly. With a heady balance of seriousness and irony, Beiner’s article represents an earnest attempt to draw out a clear understanding of the political thought or worldview of Stephen Bannon. He concludes:

“[Bannon’s] worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of (liberal) elites. One can speculate that Trump was drawn to Bannon because Bannon shared Trump’s sense of the political opportunities ripe to be exploited of European-style right-wing populism: whatever is driving the rise of populism in Europe can drive populism in America as well. Beyond this strategic instinct or insight, neither of them seems to have any particularly coherent idea of what they believe in, apart from the notion of a conspiracy on the part of a sinister liberal-cosmopolitan elite ("the party of Davos") against common folk in Kansas and Colorado. As the statement of a political philosophy, one has to say that it is pretty shallow and poorly thought-through."

Is this a (relatively) good thing or a (relatively) bad thing? Who do we want navigating the ship of state? Someone who is shortsighted, and lacking knowledge of the sea? Or a skilled navigator that wants to sail us into dangerous territory?  Better a Karl Rove  than a Carl Schmitt? Right?

Either way, we’re clearly entering a dangerous era of political uncertainty.

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How to Support Migrant Rights in Canada

Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other front-line civil society organizations in the United States, have surged in the early days of the Trump Administration. As Donald Trump strips away the fundamental rights and protections afforded to women and girls, immigrants and refugees (especially, Muslims), and the environment, large swaths of the public have decided to push back by turning to non-partisan civil society actors to defend their interests and values.

Many Canadians have also donated to these American organizations, but are equally concerned with the threat that Trump poses to Canada — particularly the rhetoric of Canadian politicians inspired by his movement, and concerns whether our country is doing enough to provide support to those impacted by his policies. However, it is difficult to know which organizations in Canada are worth supporting, as it’s not entirely clear which are working on the front-lines of these issues.

I work on civil liberties and rights issues in Canada, and follow closely the legal organizations that operate in this sphere. My work includes direct-service and strategic legal work on a range of issues, including migrant rights. From my perspective, the only relevant civil liberties organization in Canada is the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). The BCCLA is on the front-lines of almost every liberty and rights issue in this country, including the right to die, state surveillance, solitary confinement, citizenship revocation, and far too many to list here. They do direct service work, but also broader systemic work through strategic litigation, policy development, and awareness building. In recent years, they have also shown a willingness to directly take on lawsuits, which unlike the United States, is rare in Canada.

When it comes to specific legal organizations working on migrant rights issues, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) is the legal advocacy organization that is most deserving of your support. Since it was founded in 2011, CARL has been doing critical legal work that no other organization can or will do. During the Harper years, when Canada’s migratory laws and policies took a turn for the draconian and inhumane, it was CARL that led the fight, winning key legal battles to ensure that migrants, especially refugees and refugee claimants, were treated with respect and dignity.

The BCCLA and CARL are non-profit organizations in Canada that are doing meaningful legal work to protect and enhance the liberties and rights of people in Canada on both an individual and systemic level. As things here and south of the border develop, follow them to see how things are unfolding here in Canada, and what you can do to support.

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Links From This Week's Thread

The Quebec attack has caused many Muslim-Canadians to reflect on their experiences and place in Canada. Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif’s “A Multicultural Ideal, and a Difficult Reality” is one of many worth reading, along with Shireen Ahmed’s “Mothering in a Time of Terror.”

David Gutnick founded one of Quebec’s radical far-right neo-Nazi organizations, which was committed to violence to advance its nationalist views. But something changed for Gutnick, and now he works against White radicalization in Quebec. Here’s an interview with Gutnick in which he explains the reason for his hate and why he walked away from his neo-Nazi worldview.

It’s time to use Trumpspeak against him: “Look at Yemen. Disaster. Totally preventable. More nuclear arms? Is he joking? He’s dangerous. Unsafe. Has to go. It’s horrifying, an embarrassment. Everyone knows it. If you’re not boring yourself, you’re not doing it right. Seriously.”

The Alt-Majority: How Social Networks Empowered Mass Protests Against Trump.

I work from home.

Rumors about Mick Fleetwood that you should probably know about.

The early years of La Blogotheque never goes out of style for me, and in my weekend of lonely procrastination and studying I felt obliged to revisit some old favourites including this classic by Beirut and the infamous freight elevator version of Neon Bible. Ok, ok and the all time best version of Mumford’s Banjolin Song. AND this San Fermin performance, damn.

Catherine Wallace is the latest recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship, which provides “a seasoned Canadian journalist with the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue.” Wallace “is exploring the future of journalism at a time when the news industry is in a financial crisis,” and is publishing her findings in the Toronto Star as part of the Atkinson Series. Wallace’s first piece looks at whether universities or citizen groups can help fill the void with the collapse of for-profit journalism models.  

From digging up news to spinning it; former journalists make the jump to political press secretaries.

This gritty portrait of a group of Iraqis that are on the front-line of the battle for Mosul is gripping in its depictions of their motivations and misery, as well as how Luke Mogelson captures the realities of modern urban warfare.

Richie Assaly