The Week's Conversations: Israel's Dilemma, Airbnb, Informal Caregiving, Mbembe, Xenofeminist Manifesto, Silent Evidence

A weekly conversation between friends.

Israel's Everlasting Dilemma

Back in 2013, during a month-long exchange at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, my professor laid out for us what is often considered the fundamental dilemma that has for decades obstructed the pathway towards a peaceful, two-state resolution between Israel and Palestine.

The dilemma is complex, but extremely helpful for understanding the conflict — at least from an Israeli perspective.* It goes something like this:

The state of Israel wants three things: i) to be a Jewish state, ii) to be a democracy, and iii) to maintain control of the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). These three ‘things’, however, are in conflict — choosing any two of them will make the third impossible.

That’s because the majority of people living in the occupied territories are not Jewish. Therefore, an Israel that includes these territories must be either a Jewish state, or a democracy. It cannot be both.

This dilemma was best articulated in an outstanding article from 2003 by the late historian and essayist Tony Judt. After laying out the dilemma, he outlines Israel’s three options, given the above formulation:

1. “It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.”

2. “[Israel can maintain control of the occupied territories], whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.”

3. “Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.”

The first option forms the basis of the two-state solution, which has long been considered the ‘international consensus’ for a peaceful resolution — despite the conspicuous fact that little to no progress towards such a resolution has been made in decades.

The reason why the two-state solution has failed so magnificently is, of course, up for debate. Those inclined to see the conflict through the lens of settler colonialism will argue that such a solution was doomed from the get-go. Edward Said gave up on two-state solution with the signing of the original Oslo Accord in 1993, though most commentators will trace its downfall back to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Regardless, in the intervals between the Second Intifada, three wars in Gaza, and one in Lebanon, the steady expansion of a deliberately disruptive web of Jewish Settlements and ‘security barriers’ throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem has made the prospect of an independent Palestinian state all but impossible (not to mention the multitudinous ways in which the Israeli government has extended its control over nearly all aspects of Palestinian life).

To be blunt, though diplomats around the world remain committed, or least pay lip service to, to the peace process, the two-state solution is dead.

The second option describes the so-called status quo — a condition that was entrenched following the Six-Day War.  Indeed, Secretary John Kerry drew on this very formulation in his recent ‘farewell speech’, in which he blasted Israel: “It can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.”

Though it sounds innocuous, the status quo has in fact been devastating for Palestinians and Arab Israelis, who have for decades lived as second-class citizens in what the scholar Oren Yiftachel has termed an ‘ethnocracy’: “which denotes a non-democratic rule for and by a dominant ethnic group, within the state and beyond its borders.”

I was personally overwhelmed by the untenable nature of the status quo when I visited the Shuafat refugee camp, located just a few minutes from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Home to some 22,000 Palestinians, Shuafat is a sprawling, violent, and anarchic slum, completely encircled by the Israeli ‘security barrier’. Unable to pass into the valley below, a massive pool of sewage had collected along a section of the towering cement barrier. The camp was built over half a century ago.

Though the most radical, Judt seems to suggest that the third option best describes the direction that the state of Israel was choosing to follow:

“Anyone who supposes that this third option is unthinkable above all for a Jewish state has not been watching the steady accretion of settlements and land seizures in the West Bank over the past quarter-century, or listening to generals and politicians on the Israeli right, some of them currently in government.”

These words, written in 2003, seem even less radical today. Israel has tacked even further to the right, electing a governing coalition that “contains no parties that even rhetorically accept a two-state solution, or anything more than an ersatz Palestinian statelet.” Led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and supported what appears to be unconditionally by President-elect Trump and his hardline, ultra-right ambassador to Israel — the government has shown little interest in peace or international law, opting instead to accelerate the settlement of the West Bank.

Just a few weeks ago, David Shulman, a professor and activist for peace in Israel-Palestine, filed a devastating report from the West Bank that details the Israeli government’s ongoing, systematic expulsion of some 15,000 Palestinian Bedouins from their homeland in the Jordan Valley: “We are now witnessing in the Jordan Valley an accelerated process of what must, I fear, be called ethnic cleansing. It’s not a term I use lightly.”

So here we are. The Israeli dilemma, as it is commonly formulated, appears insurmountable. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new framework.

The fundamental problem with the ‘international consensus’, according to Judt, is that it is based on an outdated understanding of statehood, sovereignty, and nationalism. We’ve moved on from a world divided into distinct ethnic nation-states, he explains, to a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law: “Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

He concludes his essay with what was, at the time, a bold alternative:

“The time has come to think the unthinkable… The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinian.”

The notion (and the feasibility) of a binational state has been widely studied, and is supported by a number of thinkers and groups on the left. And yet, 14 years later, this alternative remains largely on the sidelines, even as the ‘international consensus’ withers away.

*A recent article by Rashid Khalidi in The Guardian explains how the entire discourse around the two-state solution not only gives Israel “the upper hand”, but also “ignores the basic rights of the Palestinian people, and the requirements of international law, of justice and of equity.”


The Ethics of Airbnb'ing

I Airbnb’d for the first time in San Francisco and, out of curiosity, asked the hosts (a married couple) why they decided to join the Airbnb economy. To paraphrase: they couldn’t afford the rent on the entire 3-story Victorian, so they had to have a roommate for a while. But, they just found it really inconvenient having to share the kitchen and living room, plus put up with someone else’s weird habits all the time. Then, they realized they could make more money renting single rooms on Airbnb, only when they wanted, and they didn’t have to share the kitchen or living room at all! Yay, optimization! It confirmed my worst fears about Airbnb - that it gives landlords/subletters an easy, lucrative, and flexible cashflow solution that reduces rentals available for long-term residents. Basically, it perpetuates housing inequality and commodification of living space.*

New data (from a consulting firm started by Airbnb hosts) suggests that Airbnb may not be reducing rental stock and driving up rents as much as activists are saying, but a third of Airbnb’s revenue does come from listings that are of particular concern for critics: homes/rooms that are rented out for a large portion of the year (and come with coffeemakers and tiny shampoo bottles!). Airbnb’s incentive to build this “commercial stock” is obvious: it’s more profitable because the units are used more often (thus gaining a higher ranking and higher nightly rates), provides a more dependable and uniform experience for the guest (see the globalization of airbnb-style minimalism), and presents a lower liability risk.

I recently learned that Airbnb has created an innovation studio called Samara; their first project was to assist a rural Japanese town with the building of a ‘community centre’ for hosting guests, which will be maintained 100% by and 97% for the town. Samara has suggested this is a replicable model for other dying towns (maybe they’ll become like casinos on reserves?). As ever, according to Airbnb, it’s not building “hotels;” it’s on the cutting edge of social innovation.

*The Awl has had great, openly-questioning coverage of Airbnb (and the sharing economy generally) for years, like: "What if renting [out] your apartment is just another item on the list of things you have to do to get it, right after “getting a terrible loan?” Then how will you think of Airbnb? What kind of relationship will hosts have with it? And what will they want?”



The holidays have officially come to a wrap. The few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are an annual check-in for families and friends. Parents get older. Someone might be scheduled for a major surgery in the new year. Revisiting each other and seeing another year go by is a reality check for the time bygone.

Informal caregiving, the unspoken responsibility of families, is a big deal. In 2012 (which is the latest year Statistics Canada has available results), 30% of Canadians provided some form of caregiving to family or friend members. Most are women and unpaid for this work.

It’s also difficult work without much preparation or training. NPR’s article highlights the uncharted territory that family members face. Families struggle to figure out if they should take their wife to the hospital if a wound starts to drain more fluid than it has been or if their mom is having more pain than usual.

Caregiving is also an important aspect of connecting with someone during their illness. Christina Frangou recounts a tale of losing her husband to renal cell carcinoma. An aggressive cancer meant that her husband died 42 days after his diagnosis. She recounts the experience of “an ‘off-time’ death,” and having such little time to say goodbye.

It’s not a problem that’s going away anytime soon. It will be important for us to figure out how to support caregivers as we have more living with major medical problems. Working at the hospital, I see this discussion come to light. Patients and their families are constantly asked to figure out how they are going to manage at home after their discharge. Feeling like you are on an emotional roller coaster is the rule rather than an exception.

Naheed Mukadam won The Lancet’s Wakley Prize for her essay “Stay with me.” It is a tale of the unconditional love that caregivers display for their loved ones.


Mbembe on the Ending of the Age of Humanism

Contribution from Daniel Sherwin

Achille Mbembe is one of Africa’s leading political thinkers, and he’s not feeling great about 2017.

In his punchy, provocative essay, “The Age of Humanism is Ending”, Mbembe lays out in an unusually clear fashion the constellation of political trends that have dominated the last decade. His central thesis is that we are witnessing a break-down in the post-War Liberal order, which rested on an uneasy alliance between Capitalism and Democracy. “At its core,” he writes “liberal democracy is not compatible with the inner logic of finance capitalism”. 


The Xenofeminist Manifesto: the Emancipatory Potential of Technology

Francis Tseng writes in The New Inquiry:

Silicon Valley’s most powerful monopoly may be how we perceive technology. . . . New services and products are seldom designed for those who need them. If anything, they end up expanding the myriad ways in which exploitation can occur.
. . .

The Xenofeminist Manifesto, published by the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks lays out a new framework for technology’s role in social progress. “Why is there so little explicit, organized effort to repurpose technologies for progressive gender political ends?” the authors ask. “The real emancipatory potential of technology remains unrealized… the ultimate task lies in engineering technologies to combat unequal access to reproductive and pharmacological tools, environmental cataclysm, economic instability, as well as dangerous forms of unpaid/underpaid labor.”

Further reading:


Silent Evidence

The Heart is a podcast about sex and relationships, and provided one of the most powerful podcast series of 2016 with Silent Evidence.

Silent Evidence is about Tenessee Watson, an American journalist and documentarian, coming to terms with being sexually assaulted as a child by her gymnastics teacher. In four parts, Tennessee invites listeners on her journey from understanding and being able to express what happened to her, to confronting the person who violated her and the ensuing legal proceeding, to finally unpacking the process and its outcome.

The series provides an insightful, first-hand perspective on what survivors of sexual violence endure, and the courage it takes to find answers and justice.

The Heart is hosted by Kaitlin Prest, and was initially based at CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, before moving to the United States with Prest in 2012. There, it received the attention and funding it could never attain in Canada, and reflects a general trend Canadian podcasters face


'You Can't Go Home Again'

Part of adulthood is figuring out the person you want to be, and working to become that person. This can create distance with loved ones, as chasing one’s dreams may involve leaving your hometown, and more importantly, shared experiences and understanding with family and friends.

Understanding the distance that can be created with loved ones if becoming the person you want to be means leaving them is the subject of the Millennial episode “You Can’t Go Home Again.” In it, host Megan Tan tries to understand the distance that has grown with her mother through the one that has developed between her friend Lance and his mother.

Lance graduated high school, and immediately went to work at the gas station his mother also worked at, which was the likely trajectory for someone of his upbringing and family. However, Lance sought more. Lance attended community college, then obtained a university degree, and after years of hard work, was hired by the New York Times. Lance’s path moved him out of his mother’s world, and the ability to connect with her, which is a situation that many of us confront as we chase our dreams.


Links from the Week's Thread

The best of Canadian journalism in 2016, crowdsourced by Canadian journalists themselves. Spend an afternoon or two working through the list; there are some great pieces included (note: it's skewed towards smaller and niche publications, which will allow you to discover talented journalists and interesting stories that you may not otherwise come across). 

From the Columbia Journalism Review: The best (American) journalism of 2016 

On NPR’s Code Switch, one interviewee struggled to say “I didn't know how lucky I actually was to be born white. Lucky is not the word that I need to be using. I don't - how privileged it's been because of being born white - growing up.” But luck may be a good way of exploring the topic, with less judgment and burden. And then you can talk about the false promise of meritocracy too!

Michaela Coel wins a BAFTA for her performance in Chewing Gum, a genre defying comedy that Coel created, wrote, and stars in (currently on Canadian Netflix). Coel's remarkable acceptance speech.

A follow up to our discussion on Obama and the concept of White Innocence: Is God a White Racist?  

The weight of James Arthur Baldwin: "Baldwin seemed to have prepared himself well for his black death, his mortality, and even better, his immortality... On the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a new generation that once again feels compelled to march in the streets of Harlem, Ferguson, and Baltimore. What Baldwin knew is that he left no false heirs, he left spares, and that is why we carry him with us."

The Vast Bayleaf Conspiracy

The performance art of Tehching Hsieh: “Stripped of our papers, our possessions, our markers of social distinction, who are we? Hsieh challenged us to ponder this while he discarded all of it. A cage, homelessness, silence, the partition of the day’s hours. Without any measure to his life, Hsieh pointed at the infinite abundance of simply being alive.”

Milo Yiannopoulos's cynical book deal.

Amy Sanderson03/01/17
Trump's Threat to Press Freedom: Insights from the Turkish Experience

President-Elect Trump’s expressions of distaste for and hostility towards the press were a regular feature of his election campaign.  He blacklisted certain media outlets from his rallies, repeatedly threatened to sue the New York Times, and vowed to “open up” the libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.  Whether he intends to follow through with his threats—and indeed, many of his campaign promises—is far from clear.  But based on his statements and actions to date, President-Elect Trump appears to pose a truly unprecedented threat to freedom of the press in the United States.

If Trump is looking for advice on how one might beat a nation’s press into submission, he might pick up the phone and call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has become the world’s leading jailer of journalists.  His efforts to intimidate and silence the Turkish press date back to at least 2012, but they have taken on a new force since the failed attempt to overthrow the government in July of this year.  At least 120 journalists have been jailed just since the coup.  Some 150 news outlets have been shut down; others have been transferred to businessmen with ties to the government.

Two facts about this assault on the press are particularly unsettling.  First, the campaign appears to be working.  The surviving independent newspapers have, it appears, been successfully intimidated to some degree.  The perception among observers is that they are “beginning to pull their punches” on the Erdogan government.  And the effect is unlikely to be confined to journalists.  In an eloquent essay in the New Yorker, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak explains that while authoritarianism poses a risk to all forms of art, the prose writer is at particular risk.  Citing George Orwell, Shafak notes that the prose writer cannot control his thoughts without “killing his inventiveness,” and that the choice for the writer in an authoritarian regime is between “silence” and “death.”  This silence can be corrupting:

Silence is a strange thing, a gooey, sticky substance that sours the longer you keep it inside your mouth, like a gum gone rotten without your being aware. And it carries a contagion: strangely, silence loves company. It is easier to remain silent when others, too, do the same. Silence hates individuality. Silence hates solitude.

A second disconcerting fact is that no end to this campaign—and to Erdogan’s attempts to expand his power more generally—is in sight.  Predictably, Erdogan’s popularity soared in the aftermath of the failed coup.  This is so because the forces who orchestrated the coup—Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, and his followers—presented a very real threat to the stability of the Turkish state.  As a close friend put it to me, the Turkish people see Erdogan as the lesser of two evils.  They are “sick and tired” of his government, but recognize that a successful coup would have plunged the country into instability and chaos.  Stability is hard to come by in that region, and it is worth fighting for—even if it comes at the cost of authoritarianism.

It may be hard for some to imagine such a brutal attack on the press transpiring in the United States.  American courts have, by and large, shown themselves to be guardians of the First Amendment, and efforts to jail journalists would be met with an outcry from the American public.  That may be so—for now.  Threats to national security, real and imagined, can displace deep-seated principles overnight.  The inconceivable becomes normal—even obvious.  And even if he doesn’t replicate Erdogan’s campaign, President Trump could maintain or intensify efforts that President Obama undertook to stymie the press, including seeking to jail journalists who refuse to identify their confidential sources and vigorously resisting freedom of information requests.  One hopes, however, that these actions would be met with more scrutiny from the public than they were under President Obama.

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
A Vote for Earnestness

Anthony Bourdain: “I think we need outreach, understanding, to look inside yourself and ask, how the fuck did we get here?”

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about thoughtful engagement this week. I acknowledge that I largely live in a bubble, most of my friends have degrees, have lived elsewhere, and read quite a lot, but I was still surprised by the responses to our conversations (how naive?). Several people told me they feel uncomfortable engaging in discussions on race because they feel too stupid or uneducated, or they were afraid of others taking offense. The issues we discussed last week related to the explanatory comma are definitely quite contentious. And as soon as I brought up political correctness, the conversation was inevitably derailed to the issue of “siloing” in academia. When I challenged someone on the tone of a Facebook post related to the Berlin terror attack, we had a productive discussion on framing for Twitter vs. Facebook, and how we may be contributing to anxiety by putting this stuff on our feeds, but the person also firmly said they didn’t want to overthink all their posting.*

I guess what I have been more interested in engaging with lately is the preconceptions that lead to explanations, not the facts, and now is a particularly ripe time to engage with lots of different people, because most of us have just graduated from the same mandatory crash course on American politics. I am equally aware that we will soon face our own electoral struggles, and if the last federal election and the current leadership races are anything to go by, it will be an ugly time. I’m upset and pessimistic, but I appreciate that this past year has forced me to put some personal work into developing my understanding and conversation skills on issues of race and gender, because they aren’t going away any time soon, and the need for allies and advocates, engaged citizens, is greater than ever.

And it IS work, complex and nuanced. It’s like learning a new language, with all the humiliations and miscommunications that go along with actually using it, and maybe there’s guilt in there as well. But it’s more productive than just reading another thinkpiece or explainer (looking at you Vox). I hope that you’ll join us in our ongoing conversations around these issues, because we’re all processing and learning. Drop us a note at

*As an aside: What does it mean to be an informed citizen now, and what role does Facebook, with its desire to trap you forever in its platform, play in that?

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
The Opportunities as Journalism Confronts Digital

Most Canadians live in a city with a local newspaper owned by Postmedia. In Edmonton, where I grew up, I have seen it gut the Edmonton Journal from its revered status as one of the best newspapers in the country (earning it the first Pulitzer awarded outside of the United States), to a publication filled with more advertisements and wire service content than local news. And as it reduces its local content, readers will turn elsewhere to find information about their community, causing Postmedia to make further operational cuts. It’s a vicious cycle that leads readers without access to accurate and timely information about their community.

The story isn’t new. Digital is killing traditional journalism in North America and it’s unlikely that it will survive in its current form much longer.

However, it’s not all bad. The digital revolution is certainly overthrowing traditional forms of journalism, but in its place, it’s opening up new opportunities that can lead to better, more relevant journalism.

That’s the message from the recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, which explores media innovation in the digital age. In it, you’ll read the challenges and prospects journalists must address to remain viable in the digital age, as well as case studies and insights on the future. Here are pieces I recommend:

  1. Print is Dead. Long Live Print. -- Michael Rosenwald dives deeper into the assumptions made about print and digital, and how publications should move to digital.
  2. Can the Digital Revolution Save Indian Journalism? -- Lakshmi Chaudhry explores the booming media entrepreneurism  startup community in India, and how it’s pushing the limits of free expression.
  3. The Revolution at The Washington Post -- Kyle Pope interviews Shailesh Prakash and Joey Marburger of The Washington Post, one of American journalism’s greatest brands that has undergone dramatic transformation to remain relevant in the digital age (and after being bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos).
Amy Sanderson28/12/16
Toshiro Mifune: The Last Samurai

I discovered Akira Kurosawa, the renowned Japanese filmmaker, during the first year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Alberta. I was bored and frustrated with my life, and stumbled upon his work at the local public library. I started with Seven Samurai, and then worked myself through Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran, and others fairly quickly. Then I watched them again. And then a few times more.  Kurosawa’s films turned out to be the therapy I needed to get through the shit in my life.

If you are familiar with Kurosawa, then you know about Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese actor often cast as the lead in his films. Mifune made his debut in a Kurosawa film, and the two ended up making 15 films together, including my favourite Sanjuro. As Kursoawa’s filmmaking style revolutionized the world of cinema, so did Mifune through his acting.  Mifune brought an emotional authenticity and sensibility to his roles that has influenced a generation of actors, including Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood

The life and legacy of Mifune is explored in a new documentary called Mifune: The Last Samurai. It hasn’t been released in Canada yet, but here is filmmaker Steven Okazaki discussing the impact of Mifune, as well as a Daily Beast run down on the documentary.  

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
Gavin Schmitt: Canada's Volleyball Superstar

Buried in the middle of the latest edition of Maisonneuve, an award winning Montreal-based magazine on arts and ideas, is “All On the Line,” a feature by Richard Kelly Kemick on Gavin Schmitt. You likely have no idea who Gavin Schmitt is – but he is one of Canada’s most prolific living athletes and is celebrated internationally.

Schmitt is one of the greatest volleyball players in the world. He is a superstar. However, volleyball doesn’t have the same stature here as it does in Europe or Brazil, and so, as Kemick notes, Schmitt blends in with all the other oddly tall men you may find in Saskatoon.

The feature is introduced as a profile of Schmitt. In reality, though, it is about Kemick, who as a former volleyball player, comes to terms, in a hilarious and somewhat bitter manner, with the fact that he can never enter the world of elite volleyball. 

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
Toughening Up Progressive Political Strategies

In Canada, we have  progressive governments at municipal and provincial levels, and one holding the federal government,  but most of us appreciate the tenuousness of the progressive hold on power and are worried about upcoming elections. As one of our friends said the other night, “it’s time to bring a knife to the fight.”

While we don’t agree on whether some of the distasteful tactics the right has used, like gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dog whistle politics, should be incorporated into progressive strategies for gaining and protecting political power, none of us deny the need for progressives to be constructively loud and visible. Since we're Albertan, we see success coming from pragmatic, local engagement strategies, built on an acceptance of the limitations of our political representatives’ abilities, which is why this playbook that just came out in the U.S., updating Tea Party strategies for the left, seems sensible and worth a read.

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
The Heavyweight and the Art of Storytelling Through the Podcast

Canadians likely know Jonathan Goldstein from his show WireTap on CBC radio. His sardonic humour, unique storytelling style, and distinct voice have made him one of the top podcasters in the game. His latest podcast, Heavyweight, may be his best work yet, topping year-end lists as the top podcast of 2016.    

'Tara,' the third episode of Heavyweight, demonstrates why the podcast is receiving such rave reviews, and why Goldstein is so good at his craft. Over the course of 30 minutes, Goldstein exemplifies the very best of storytelling through the medium.

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
Links from the Week's Thread
From  The Barnes Foundation  commentary on ‘Bathers at Rest’ by Paul Cezanne: “How they could make any sense of this in 1877, I can’t imagine. It must be like it fell from the sky. . . . Critics reacted to the strange anatomies of the figures . . . . The most interesting moment is that bright green triangle on the grass. Instead of representing light as it looks to the eye, he’s developing his own idiosyncratic vocabulary for representing nature.”

From The Barnes Foundation commentary on ‘Bathers at Rest’ by Paul Cezanne: “How they could make any sense of this in 1877, I can’t imagine. It must be like it fell from the sky. . . . Critics reacted to the strange anatomies of the figures . . . . The most interesting moment is that bright green triangle on the grass. Instead of representing light as it looks to the eye, he’s developing his own idiosyncratic vocabulary for representing nature.”

Saskatoon is a bastion for female politicians, with women holding 6 out of 11 city council votes. In comparison, in Edmonton the ratio is 1 of 12, Calgary 2 of 15, Victoria 5 of 9 (gets bonus visibility points for Mayor Lisa Helps), Ottawa 3 of 24, and St. John’s 1 of 11. In case you forgot, in the 2015 federal election a record number of women (88) won seats, amounting to 26% of Parliament. #womancard

So much happening in this interview with Mitski that even if you have no idea who she is, you’ll still find something in the conversation

Emily Bell’s essay in the recent Columbia Journalism Review is an entry point for further conversations on the role of tech in delivering news.

Way back in May we read ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person’ and it almost featured in a best man speech. It’s the most read NYTimes article of 2016. “Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person.”

Listening to year end musical reviews and was delighted by this story I missed back in April, which combines several of my favourite things: How ‘Maps’ became ‘Hold Up’ via Vampire Weekend and Diplo. For similar stories of the weird ways songs come together, you might like the (now classic) podcast Song Exploder.

The New York Times has published an incredible collection of photos from 2016. Take a peek.

If you enjoy people watching, check out this documentary by film maker Kirsten Johnson. She scrapbooks together clips from her work over several decades, featuring pieces from her mom’s life to life after war in Bosnia. It’s beautifully done. She teaches the patient art of observation, bearing witness, and showing meaningful human interaction with the things she is ‘documenting.’

Amy Sanderson28/12/16
Fault Lines: Preparing for the Big One

Shortly after Kathryn Schulz won the Pulitzer for her sobering assessment of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line and the likely impacts on communities across the Pacific Northwest, I ended up at a house party in East Van. What Schulz describes in “The Really Big One” is terrifying – a looming earthquake off the coast of Vancouver Island that will result in widespread destruction and death on British Columbia’s southern coast. Naturally, I wanted to find out what locals thought about the massive earthquake that has a 1 in 10 chance of occurring within the next 50 years, and will likely result in deaths and casualties in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.

What I heard was that the threat was overblown, and that if you grew up on Vancouver Island or in the lower mainland, you had spent time in school practicing emergency scenarios and were aware of what was in store. Plus, the government had decades of time to prepare, and that they would be ready if it happens.

As one would expect after reading Schulz’s piece, I left that party thinking that these people were delusional as fuck. That they were literally facing a natural disaster of a magnitude unseen in scale and devastation in Canada during modern times, and they felt they could coast by relying on what they were taught in grade school and on the government.

But then I checked myself. Maybe Schulz was all hype, and besides, the government would have a plan.

Turns out my initial impression may have been correct. At least according to Fault Lines (podcast page), a CBC podcast by seismologist and reporter Johanna Wagstaffe, which runs through two terrifying, though likely, scenarios when either a mega-thrust or crustal earthquake hits BC’s southern coast.

There will be widespread destruction, particularly on Vancouver Island, as well as casualties and death. Although the reasons for this are unique to the region (geography, topography, building styles, lack of experience with earthquakes, etc.), Wagstaffe identifies the earthquake of Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011 as case study on what will happen here, and what can be done to prepare and coordinate.

Perhaps the most revealing thing from the series is that the government’s plan is for individual residents to have their own plan and resources to survive without support or supplies for at least 72 hours, if not a week. I wonder how many people living on Vancouver Island or in the lower mainland have an earthquake kit full of provisions that will allow them and their families to survive for a week without additional assistance?

Fault Lines tackles a necessary topic, but what is also worth commenting on is how it embodies the best of solutions-focused journalism. The series focuses on a major issue that will have significant impact on the lives of its listeners, and attempts to empower those affected to take steps now to protect life and property when the earthquakes strike. It provides expert insight, practical solutions, and, hopefully, the motivation to act.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Guest Post: Zigs and Zags

By Daniel Sherwin

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ elegy for the Obama presidency is heartbreaking. Based on four and a half hours of conversation with the president, Coates grapples with the meaning of eight years of a Black man in the White House. Two themes are woven throughout, the singularity of Obama, and the tragedy of Trump.

The tragedy is plain to see. For several years, Coates has been the most prominent journalist arguing that White Supremacy is the driving engine of American politics. His “Case for Reparations” is indispensable. It puts faces to the tragedies of American injustice, and shows that state-sanctioned discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black people in America has persisted from slavery to the present day.

True to this thesis, Coates has no patience for those who would downplay the role of race in explaining Trumpism, “In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as “simple” as racism could not explain it.” “No.” retorts Coates “Racism is never simple.”*

The singularity of Obama comes from his unique relationship to American history. Obama grew up outside of the mainstream American racial order. His parents committed no crime with their inter-racial marriage. Through his grandparents, Obama saw the best, and not the worst, of White America. He is a believer, in Coates’ phrase, in “White innocence.”

In Coates’ telling, this belief becomes Obama’s defining feature, his greatest political asset and the cause of his great blindness. In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Coates explores this core dimension of his thesis – that a Black man who believes what Coates believes, who believes in White Supremacy and not White Innocence, could never become president.

Obama’s faith in White America, and in American institutions, perhaps explains his calm in the face of Trump’s election. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” Obama says, “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”

* It does no good, as Coates would surely agree, to lean on White Supremacy as an explanation if its only effect is to demonize Republican voters and foster a sense of smug, cosmopolitan superiority. On this score, two short articles on the experience of the what working class in America, one in Cracked (and endorsed by Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr) and the other in the Harvard Business Review, are invaluable. I would also quote Heather McGhee of Demos who merges the two lines of analysis in her elegant phrase “Race is the weapon in the class war” (again in an Ezra Klein interview).

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Reading ‘My President Was Black’ In Spite Of Privilege

On Friday, we all listened to the latest Code Switch podcast on explanatory comma. It comes off lighthearted, but it brings up all these issues surrounding how we talk to one another, in what contexts, with what expectations, and through what lenses. More immediately relevant, it suggested to me that there may be value in approaching ‘My President Was Black,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memorial to the Obama presidency, from the perspective of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s response to it. I had accidentally read Cottom first, and it primed me for better understanding why Coates roots his piece in Obama’s understanding of, and relationships with, White people.

Cottom writes early on in her essay:

I am black. I come from black people who are southerners even when they were New Yorkers for a spell. We are the black American story of enslavement, rural migration, urban displacement, resistance, bootstrapping, mobility, and class fragility. In this milieu we, as a friend once described it, know our whites. To know our whites is to understand the psychology of white people and the elasticity of whiteness. It is to be intimate with some white persons but to critically withhold faith in white people categorically. It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem.

Coates, for his part, suggests that Obama transcended racial tensions because he was uniquely optimistic and trusting of White people, and they responded to this. Through Coates’ writing, we are implicitly asked to question whether Obama was wrong to trust White people, wrong to be optimistic about them, and how this trust undermined advances he might have been able to work towards for black Americans. But Cottom makes a more difficult ask: was Obama wrong because he believes he can transcend race without permission from White people?

Cottom and Coates both write with a palpable anger and sorrow. But I am realizing that Coates’ article, the tone of it, his drive towards emotion and eloquence, as opposed to bluntness, may allow us to read it comfortably as a post-mortem that places blame in the abstract on White Supremacy and is not an immediate call for action; that leaves us assured that Obama still trusts us to do the right thing.

This is why Cottom’s piece is an essential pairing, because it argues that Obama’s presidency was something Whites allowed and his race, by nature of his unique personal backstory, was something that they could accept. “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.” His election was still part of a narrative of White Supremacy and entrenched racism.

If, after all this, you read the Coates article and feel sad but slightly comforted, not particularly angry, please, immediately go read section five of it again. Don’t read anything else, just section five. Coates writes: “The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness.” 

Here’s how another great writer Jamelle Bouie puts it: “Trump intuitively sees the interplay between economic interest and identity, pandering to white workers as whites and workers, who want racial hierarchy and economic revival, who see the weakening of the former as a threat to the latter, who exist in a society where economic advantage often follows the isolation and segregation of nonwhites.”

And Cottom concludes: “Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs.”

These three pieces offer important perspectives, and I found them particularly critical reading because they openly reject the narrative that has dominated lately, I call it the Hillbilly Elegy theory, which is that Hillary would have won had she catered to some supposed downtrodden White working class, as opposed to alienating them by celebrating diversity and saying racism is bad. This theory is problematic on many levels, but at its heart ignores the actual economic/social makeup of Trump voters (more middle class than dirt poor), and openly suggests that we should extend not just empathy, but sympathy towards poor Whites who have disrupted lives due to globalization, with no attached expectations of personal responsibility and assimilation that have been applied to similarly poor and disrupted Blacks, or struggling immigrants. The theory asks us to protect their feelings by not calling them racist because it implicitly demands an acceptance of White Innocence (when Whites accept the need for equality before the law, but deny that their Whiteness affords them any benefits or that there is a need for anti-racist policies). I think, fundamentally, the appeal of the HB theory results from conceiving of discussions of racism solely within a good/evil dichotomy, where calling out racism is only about personally guilting and shaming. I’m not saying that discussions about race and racism don’t bring a risk of discomfort, but that’s not their sole purpose: they can be powerful ways of identifying discrimination and building empathy with one another so that we can move forwards.

Cottom writes “empathy may be why Obama could look at years of pictures of his wife and children drawn as apes and decades of white backlash to perceived black socio-economic gains as racial, albeit not racist: “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” In politics, this kind of empathy, while difficult and asking so much of those who are discriminated against, is essential. Obama has asked repeatedly for more empathy, and it’s what social commentary, like that of Coates, Cottom, and explanatory commas, can build. It is absolutely necessary for us to continuously acknowledge and discuss how the social constructions of race shape our views and those of others. Only from that knowledge will we find a way to build compelling narratives that are not specially aimed at a supposed disadvantaged White working class, but recognize that in politics, “identity and representation are critical. They ground a broad appeal that is attentive to lived experience, that stresses common threads without losing sight of the challenges facing each group, that sees diversity as integral to making progress on all struggles. This is a broad and inclusive liberalism—common vision from common struggle.”

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Fake News? Or Political Propaganda

The proliferation of fake news scares the shit out of me — that we’ve so quickly slipped into a world that is casually described as ‘post-truth’, one in which fringe political movements are strengthened by social media algorithms, and reckless conspiracy theories can have major impacts on presidential campaigns.

“Fake news is so easy to make trend on Facebook that Macedonian teens are earning up to $3,000 a day duping Trump supporters with viral fake stories that confirm their viewpoints,” Ryan Broderick points out, in an terrifying story on Buzzfeed.

I was really struck by Mark Danner’s recent piece, titled The Real Trump, which describes in shocking detail his experience at a Trump rally in Pittsburgh, days before the election:

The rich satisfactions of a politics of villainy! Complicated decades-long tales of technological advance and social change dissolve into the self-satisfied sneer on a hated face. All around me I saw it reproduced, mostly behind bars, on “Crooked Hillary” buttons and “Hillary for Jail!” sweatshirts and much, much worse. “Hillary Clinton murders children!” a middle-aged woman waiting in the two-mile-long line had shouted. “It’s been proved. Hillary Clinton rapes and murders children.”

In David Remnick’s essential profile of Barack Obama, the President too warns of the dangers of fake news:

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

But perhaps referring to the rapid and deliberate spread of misinformation as ‘the problem of fake news’ is itself misleading. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Sarah Kendzior argues that,

“Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting…when Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.”

Propaganda is a problem as old as politics. I fear, however, that in an age of social media and the internet, finding solutions will be difficult.  How do we push back? Can Facebook or Twitter stop the flood? Are they willing too? Is a Chrome extension going to save us?

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Looking: For Some Lonely Time

We have arrived at the shortest day of the year, today, which comes with some apprehension for me. The inching down of daylight hours finally stops. But it also means that it’s time to accept winter’s arrival and prepare for some bitter months ahead. Although the festive season and social gatherings this month are a great time to enjoy with family and friends, the dark, dull days of winter can be a lonely experience.

So let me take a moment to stop and reflect on this. Loneliness, introversion, social isolation, solitude...

Although related, the words all mean different things to everyone who experiences them at different times. We know that that loneliness is probably bad for our health. But we also live in a hyper-connected and distractible world. Time for reflection and engaged connection can be missing from our daily lives. With a pressure to connect, network, engage, it can feel like you’re falling behind when you don’t find a sense of community and meaning in your daily work.  

Some people enjoy being alone more than others, but it doesn’t mean they are lonely. While some of my friends are horrified by the notion of dining or going to the movies alone, solo dining is on the rise. The Ramen chain Ichiran opened its first location outside of Japan in NYC in October 2016. Also, this New Yorker piece tells the story of an 87-year-old Donald Hall. He recounts his life through the small friendships or lack thereof, finding and then losing love (twice).

This problem of feeling lonely: it is not unique to millennials, our seniors, or North America. Finding meaning and community can be challenging for all of us. It is influenced by how we change our environment and try and adapt to new technology or a new way of living. The story of Shanghai’s seniors who met across shrimp cakes and soft serve on a $3 date in Ikea to find love and combat loneliness tells us that.

This video below went viral a couple years ago and deserves another look. It’s one of these videos I have come back to many times, especially when things feel down.

Take a look and take some time to be alone with your thoughts this week. Take solitude in the fact that we are all figuring this out together.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
If You’re Looking to Moralize About Trudeau’s Government, Try the Saudi Arms Deal, Not Some Fundraising Pseudo-scandal BS

Last week, as the Globe and Mail celebrated one of its writers for winning coverage on the Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. announced that they are blocking sales of precision weapons to the country over “poor targeting”  in the ongoing conflict with Yemen.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion says the Canadian armoured vehicle exports, worth $15 billion, will continue. As reported by the Globe: “Mr. Dion said Canada feels it is doing a pretty good job of monitoring Saudi Arabia for illicit use of combat vehicles, although he did not indicate how this is done.” The Canadian government maintains that it has never come across an instance where the machines have been misused. . . . . Mr. Dion revealed, however, that Ottawa has cautioned the Saudis to be careful how they fight in Yemen, where cluster bombs have been blamed for widespread civilian deaths. “We have asked to the Saudi coalition to be much more respectful and cautious about the equipment you are talking about.”

The secrecy surrounding this deal is a disgrace (read this story from April; it makes me think that the quickest way to end it would be to expose every single one of the 500 subcontractors involved), and it’s a shame that as Trudeau goes about undoing the work of the Conservative Government he can only muster a shoulder shrug of fait accompli regarding the deal.

UNICEF stated that as a result of the war: “At least one child dies every ten minutes in Yemen because of preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections.” And the NYTimes produced a short multimedia story that introduces you to some of those children.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Staying Warm, with Ishmael and Queequeg

According to the infallible document that is the Canadian Farmer’s Almanac, we’re in for a long, exceptionally cold, and very snowy winter. Here in Toronto, it hit us like a tonne of bricks just last week.

How can we better cope with the cold and the snow? For me, it’s finding joy in the little things. Watching neighbours who hardly speak to each other throughout the warm months join happily together in the early morning to dislodge a car from a snowbank, laughing at the one person who inevitably takes a tumble; arriving at work 45 minutes late without shame; spiking your coffee with the eggnog that one of your coworkers brought in that you vow to yourself to replace but won’t replace; bathing for hours…

But I’ve not yet mentioned the greatest of the simple winter joys — one that has existed since time immemorial, and is described with absolute precision by Herman Melville in Chapter 11 of Moby Dick:

“We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.

Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the headboard with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our knee-pans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blankets between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Colour Code vs Code Switch: Conversations on Race for Whom? 

Colour Code and Code Switch are podcasts that explore race and identity, but from vastly different perspectives. Colour Code, by the Globe and Mail, examines race and identity in Canada, and as you would expect from a national publication providing a platform for these conversations in this country, is focused on demonstrating that these issues are real to White Canadians. NPR’s Code Switch, on the other hand, is well past that initial phase, and is instead fostering real discussions among racialized peoples in the United States around the intricacies of race and identity.  

Take for example how each podcast approaches White Fragility. White Fragility refers to the defensiveness of White people when discussions of race challenge their privilege. Our society insulates White people from confronting issues of race and identity in the manner racialized people do on a daily basis. When they are confronted, they feel threatened, and often assume the status of victim, derailing real progress.

Colour Code addressed White Fragility after co-host Denise Balkissoon’s now infamous interview with Ian Power (the interview, the dissection, and Balkissoon’s column on White Fragility). The main point of the episode was to demonstrate that White Fragility is real, and that it is often a barrier to real conversations on race and identity.

The existence of White Fragility comes as no surprise to racialized Canadians. While many of us may not know it by that specific name, we have certainly witnessed it in some form or the other.  

Code Switch explores essentially the same topic in its most recent episode Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma but from the perspective of racialized people. Instead of placing White people at the centre of the discussion, it focuses on the extent to which racialized individuals should provide cultural context of their lives to White people. As the hosts explain, racialized people often feel as if they have to make it easy for White people to understand their experiences and perspectives, rather than expecting them to put in the effort to learn about them on their own.

As a racialized person, I find Colour Code entertaining, but I don’t really learn anything about race or identity that I can put into practice in my life. This isn’t the case after listening to a Code Switch episode, where even if I disagree with a particular perspective, I internalize what is being discussed as it makes me confront issues of race and identity in ways that I never considered before.  

Colour Code is a bold, transformational step by a mainstream media platform to introduce the complexities around race and identity to Canadians. But, sadly, it’s not meant for someone like me, who is past the introductory stage, and looking for real engagement on these issues in the Canadian setting.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
People with Dicks: Do Better

I listened to this podcast on dick pics so you don’t have to. It 100% affirms everything most women know: many guys like sending dick pics, but only gay guys like receiving dick pics. I don’t have to actually mention women in the summary because women’s consent and desires do not factor into dick pic-ing at all. One man interviewed, who sent 5 dick pics that day alone, says, “And they say women don’t like dick pics, but I don’t know. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t. I mean, it’s a dick pic.” He probably can’t imagine a woman needing anything more than his dick to orgasm as well.

Further (and more empathetic) reading: “I’m often asked why I started [Critique My Dick Pic], and the truth is that I woke up one morning to a dick pic so good that I felt inspired to change the others. That’s all it was—one excellent, well-planned pic from a person whose dick I explicitly wanted to see. I was jarred by how unnecessarily rare that move was and struck by the conviction that people with dicks could do better.”

Amy Sanderson
Donald Glover Redefines Conceptions of Black America

2016 was a remarkable year for Donald Glover. His television show Atlanta premiered on FX to critical acclaim, while his third studio album as Childish Gambino released this year to similar praise.

Atlanta is revolutionary in the themes and manner in which it explores African American culture and identity.

Atlanta has received rave reviews for its originality, exploration of themes such as privilege and masculinity, and its ‘slow pace’ storytelling.

"Awaken, My Love!” also dropped to widespread acclaim this year for its imagination. The album has a distinct retro-funk feel, but it’s more than a homage. As Carrie Battan argues, it’s part of Glover’s broader aim for 2016, which appears to be complicating popular understandings of African American art and life.

Amy Sanderson21/12/16
Links from the Week's Thread
  • Douglas Quan’s fantastic feature in the National Post on whether we are witnessing the death of Chinatowns in North America, with particular attention given to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the neighbourhood’s rapid gentrification.
  • A recent Globe editorial argues that the tragedy of Aleppo may mark the end of the unipolar era, and the beginning of a multipolar one in which countries like Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran will have greater influence on geopolitics. One casualty of the unipolar era, the editorial suggests, is the notion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — a flawed notion, as any political science student will tell you, but one that for decades was subscribed to, in theory, by the world’s liberal democracies:

Responsibility to protect is a noble idea: that humanity should stop regimes from abusing their own people, even forcibly removing the worst abusers. But its exercise assumes a unipolar world, in which there is an unchallenged superpower that is liberal-minded and willing to forcibly impose its ideas on recalcitrant regimes.”

  • Robin Wright argues that the collapse of the Islamic State will not minimize the threat its extremist ideology poses, as it has taken hold in the region.
  • Essential reading on how the Canadian media is creating a new Trump: “[O]nce she started talking about screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values,” her average share of news coverage jumped from 13 percent to 47 percent.”

*Via Kottke

Amy Sanderson