Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

On Taking Madmen At Their Word: Sam Harris is wrong about Islam

In Politics on 2014/10/09 at 15:06

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 10.34.03 Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 10.34.56

While watching Ben Affleck’s recent spat with Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s show I had a frustrating sense of déjà vu. It’s a conversation I have both overheard and participated in multiple times. While he was at times ineloquent and overly emotional I have to say that I understand and share Affleck’s frustration with listening to people who claim to speak as liberals as they attempt to make the case that Islam is an inherently and uniquely violent religion. Bill Maher claims “I’m the liberal in the debate,” while Harris says he wants to save “liberalism from itself.” They are wrong, both about Islam and about themselves.

Upon closer inspection the arguments for the “Islam is an especially violent religion” camp quickly reveal themselves as self-contradictory. In his follow-up to the debate Harris says he clearly “distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims” from his critique of Islamic doctrine. Yet an important part of his argument is his claim that public opinion in “the Muslim world” is overwhelmingly conservative and supportive of violence. How can he claim to be distinguishing between jihadis and the general Muslim population but then cite polls of public opinion to prove that the problem is inherent to Islamic doctrine? Which is it? Are non-combatant Muslims exempt or do their reactionary views on apostasy, jihad, and women’s rights make them part of the wider problem? In the end of course, this point is moot as the poll numbers Harris cites don’t actually support his argument. There is such variation of opinion between populations in different Muslim countries as to make the entire conversation about the cultural backwardness of “the Muslim world” meaningless.

So, Harris grossly oversimplifies poll data and contradicts himself. He is wrong about Muslims in general. He is also dead wrong about the people at the core of his concentric circles of extremism – the jihadis of ISIS and other groups. Harris dismisses the idea that ISIS functions “like a bug light for psychopaths—attracting ‘disaffected young men’ who would do terrible things to someone, somewhere, in any case.” He volunteers no reason for dismissing this idea, despite evidence to the contrary. He ignores the ignorance of many jihadis about their own religion. He ignores the judgement of Islamic scholars that groups like ISIS are un-Islamic. Perhaps most tellingly, he ignores the infamous Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik when he says that Al-Qaeda should be an inspiration to the European far-right. Harris has said elsewhere that we should ignore the myriad reasons people throughout the Muslim world might take up arms and “take Islamists and jihadists at their word.” Taking this stance as a precedent I wonder how relations with, say North Korea, might change were we to take the ruling regime at their word and base strategy on the assumption that they are working towards creating a socialist utopia where everyone is equal.

The New Atheists’ attacks on Islam might not seem so bigoted were they merely part of an overall critique of religion in general. However, prominent Atheists like Harris (and others with similar views whom I’ve interacted with personally) frequently take great pains to single out Islam specifically as being the worst case, usually betraying their cultural chauvinism by holding up Christianity and Judaism as superior belief systems. This is despite the obvious fact that, when examined in the context of history, the doctrines of all three religions both in theory and in practice are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to many of the issues cited as examples of Islam’s singular barbarity. It’s just as easy to commit violence in the name of Christianity or Judaism as it is in the name of Islam. Just because more people are using Islam at this one point in history doesn’t mean there is something inherent in Islam that makes it so. To pretend otherwise is to willfully ignore history.

Harris, Maher, and others try desperately to convince us that Islamophobia is not real, that their rants against Islam are a product of their liberalism rather than bigotry. This is hard to believe when one realizes that their arguments depend not upon examining all the facts and thinking critically about history and the global political economic system but upon cherry-picking bits of doctrine when they suit them, and ignoring doctrines that don’t support their argument. They want you to believe that the anger endemic in oppressed populations is a product of their ideologies, nothing more. Examining the motivations of violent, or even just reactionary people is portrayed as a form of cowardly appeasement. One might wonder whether Harris looks for the roots of a violent ideology as an explanation for why the youth of America’s urban cores join street gangs as. For him, context does not matter, only words and actions do.

The way Harris and others talk about Islam is dangerous because it provides intellectual cover for the imperialist policies of western governments. The west, led by the United States, is engaged in an open-ended conflict against an ever-widening circle of enemies. While our bombs drop across ever wider swathes of the “Muslim world” we are freed by Harris’s arguments from any responsibility to consider whether Islamist struggle against the west has claim to any form of legitimacy or whether our foreign policies make us culpable in any way for the violence extremists commit against the clients of the totalitarian states we support or helped create in the region.

Of course the Muslim Middle East is a horrifically illiberal place (and many American client states are the worst of all). Islamic doctrines are used in many places to oppress, terrorize, and provide legitimacy to some of the most inhuman acts in recent history. Liberal societies must stand up against this kind of brutality loudly and fearlessly, but fearlessness means keeping your eyes open and being willing to look beyond simple explanations for complex problems. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history can figure out that any religion or philosophical system can be turned into a tool used to dominate and destroy. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Socialism, Islam- all have within them elements that violent people can use to legitimate their violent acts. Pretending otherwise isn’t just “gross” as Affleck says, it’s stupid and it’s dangerous.

Since when is it ever a good idea to simply take madmen at their word?


The Seed Bank of Democracy: Conscientious Objection, Compromise, and the Defense of Liberty during “The Good War”

In Personal, Political Theory, Politics on 2014/10/06 at 16:21

During the final year of my undergraduate work I was named a Scholar at the George C Marshall Research Library. Upon re-reading the resulting paper years later I realized that what was one of my best pieces of academic work was never shared beyond a select circle. Below is an exerpt from the beginning of the paper. A PDF of the work in its entirety follows.


Jessie Wallace Hughan, one of the founding members of the pacifist group the War Resisters League, sent a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, urging him to keep the United States out of the war despite the attack.[1] Wallace’s plea was, obviously, ignored, and her organization, as well as and pacifism in general, had little influence in the public mind for years to come. Historian Scott Bennett points out, “Most studies on the World War II home front either ignore pacifism and conscientious objection, or mention them in passing, offering only a cursory discussion of them and treating both as issues of civil liberty.”[2]

American pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two is an underexplored topic. An exploration of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two provides an interesting critique and reevaluation of the American war effort, and a fascinating glimpse at the practical application of the, sometimes contradictory, American values of individualism and patriotism. Pacifism during World War Two had a disproportionately large effect on American democracy in the 20th century compared to the small number of people involved in conscientious objection.

To understand the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection as an alternative view, or even a critique, it is first necessary to acknowledge the power, and examine the basic outline, of the concept of America’s “Good War.” In the collective national psyche of the United States, and in the glitzy materialization of that psyche that is American popular culture, perceptions and depictions of the Second World War largely fall within the bounds of a doctrine, which, for the most part, goes largely unquestioned. That doctrine is, of course, that World War Two was the 20th century’s “Good War,” that American involvement in the war was just, that those who participated in the war effort make up “The Greatest Generation,” and that to have refused to fight the expansionist forces of European fascism and Japanese imperialism would have been to shirk the moral obligations of American greatness.

The story of the Allied struggle in World War Two is one of America’s favorite stories. World War Two is a powerful meme in American culture, in print, in film, and in the ever increasingly important medium of electronic gaming. Culturally speaking, the war is an opportunity for the storyteller to place a near mythic sheen on a tale of actual historical events. The sheer horror of many of the crimes of the Axis powers makes it easy to paint the war as an epic battle between heroism and villainy. Set against this backdrop of uncomplicated, almost Manichaean struggle, the war is the symbolic crowning achievement of the United States’ journey towards becoming a world power.

One humorous example of the power and near sacred status of the meme of “The Good War” in American pop culture is a mock PSA at the close of an episode of The Simpsons television show. The episode’s plot revolves around a schoolyard battle and Bart Simpson reminds viewers that, contrary to what has just been seen; “War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War Two, and the Star Wars Trilogy.”[3] This is just one example, yet it is the quintessence of America’s pop culture obsession with World War Two. The addition of a fictional story of the fantasy genre to the list of “good wars” humorously underscores the extent to which World War Two has attained a status in American culture almost akin to that of a sacred legend.

President Roosevelt wanted America to be Democracy’s Arsenal. There were some in the United States who believed that, by it’s very nature, Democracy cannot be protected by an arsenal. That true Democracy is not established by force of arms, but is grown. They saw Democracy as arising naturally from a free society, and the seeds of that free society are the individual liberties of each of its citizens. The refusal of those who opposed violence on moral grounds to give up their individual right to maintain their consciences protected these seeds of a free society thought should be sacrificed for the short term gain of a nation fully mobilized for war. Is there such a thing as a good war? Is the militarization of a society for the purposes of violent conflict justified in certain situations? And should minorities who disagree be silenced for a time, in the interest of the greater good? A small group of Americans during World War Two answered “no.” An outline of the argument for the “Good War” narrative, juxtaposed with the words and actions of conscientious objectors, complicates, and deepens our understanding of this iconic era. The nuances of the differences in opinion between the many different groups of conscientious objectors and their respective supporters, will lead to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection to the seeds of Democracy, individual liberties.

Read the full paper here:

Seed Bank of Democracy

La Vie En Rose

In Art, Personal, Politics, Pop Culture, World on 2013/10/12 at 18:48

The subject is reminding the viewer of the author’s presence, because they’re staring straight back at you…it creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind so then they’re confused and angry and disoriented. This is great because you’ve actually got them to think about the act of perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed.

— Richard Mosse, on The Enclave

Fashionable as a certain style of cultural illiteracy may be, I like to know about the cultural matrix the people who sit next to me on the bus might live in. I admit to being aware of the attention Miley Cyrus’ new image has received. Her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards bears the distinction of being the most tweeted-about event in history at 360,000 tweets per minute. Concerned mothers everywhere are mourning the seemingly inevitable corruption of Hannah Montana. Sinead O’Conner has evidently appointed herself their leader, admonishing Cyrus, whom she calls a “precious young lady” with motherly wisdom like this:

Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected…This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals…

Maybe my feminism is a bit off, but to me that reads as one of the more insidious types of rape apologetics.

A former child star somehow transformed into a 20 year old woman. This is presented to us as if it should confuse and anger us.

The full Cyrus experience — from Hannah Montana to what I believe has been dubbed correctly as a sort of poor-man’s Lady Gaga — does not surprise me. The phallic metaphors with a sledgehammer, the full nudity, the suggestive dancing, does not surprise me. It should not surprise anyoneWhen it comes to female sexuality, especially when it is youthful, America suffers from a prudish puritan tension between disdain and titillation. This is the reason why you even can make millions of dollars by showing a young woman in a sexual light in America in the first place.

Much has been said about the racial aspects of the VMA performance, much has been said about how Robin Thicke, the much older man onstage with Cyrus, escaped much attention, but there is something more to be considered. Am I alone in noting a not insignificant note of a different kind of disappointment in the popular discourse around Miley’s new image? Wasn’t part of the excitement and commentary on Miley at the VMAs a sort of embarrassment that, somehow, she wasn’t doing it right? She wasn’t being NuBritney enough? She’s cropping her hair short and sticking her tongue out, and though we know we are supposed to say we’re offended by the sexuality of her performance, we feel robbed that the sexiness is missing.

Miley Cyrus smoking fan art illustration by Stevie Driscoll

Illustration by Stevie Driscoll

Not all the concern has been about the danger to Miley Cyrus and women everywhere when we allow them to be depicted as sexual beings. (Remember, they become “prey.”) Miley Cyrus isn’t just refusing to cover up and quit with the dirty dancing, she’s also spreading reefer madness amongst America’s youth. The very profitable buzz around the New Miley plays off two separate problems with American culture that work in a similar way. There is a reason for the classic combination of drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. Just as the collective kitchen table of America still hasn’t figured out that by making the female form something illicit (something that must be hidden and protected from spoilage) we therefore make it seem that much more exciting, we see a similar stubborn myopia when it comes to drugs. Rather than dealing with abuse and addiction as physio-psycho-social problems, inebriation is criminalized and thus is created the black market for drugs. Rather than talking openly and honestly with our children and our society about sexuality, we make sex a taboo to be exploited by pornographers and their ilk.

I felt a strange existential dizziness as, looking into Miley Cyrus’ eyes, I reflected on what I had been reading about the situation in the Congo after watching a trailer for Richard Mosse’s film The Enclave. Embroiled in a decades–long series of conflicts that have left much of what is one of the most resource–rich regions in the world in what Mosse calls a “Hobbesian state,” the eastern region of the country in particular is known as the rape capital of the world and “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
Please watch the trailer.

Eastern forest-boreal transition

In Canada, Food, Personal, Philosophy on 2013/09/07 at 17:44

Most of the time I don’t even have to leave my apartment to see dozens of people every day. I can hear their conversations in an always impressive array of languages, examine their clothes and faces as we politely pretend to ignore each other in the elevator, or watch them work through the windows of their offices directly across from my window. I live in Toronto, the fifth most populous city in North America, and it’s amazing, it’s exciting and, often, it can be completely overwhelming. That’s why, for quite some time, my friend Ian and I had been planning a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.

Algonquin covers an area more than ten times the size of the City of Toronto, yet the permanent, off-season population of the surrounding area is counted in thousands, perhaps even only hundreds, while Toronto is home to almost three million.

In four days in the park we only saw six or seven other human beings, and we saw all of them from a distance. Sometimes in the early evening we could hear people across the water and catch a glimpse of their campfires through the trees, but whenever anyone became aware of our presence they acted with an unspoken code of back-country etiquette, which we always reciprocated, and tried their best to keep quiet, as if their presence in our vicinity ought to be a source of embarrassment. The loudest noises we heard with any regularity were the sound of wind through the tops of the trees and the calls of a pair of loons.

Provoking Lake

For two underemployed, city-dwelling 20-somethings there is no greater and more affordable getaway than a good camping trip. We already had or could easily borrow most of the gear we needed- which was fairly minimal anyways, back-country permits are reasonably priced, we were going to have to pay for food no matter where we were, and if we went for a back-packing trip instead of sticking to the water we wouldn’t have to pay to rent a canoe.

The only real obstacle was transportation. I own a car but realized some time ago that paying over 100 dollars per month to park it was not worth it when I live half a block from a subway station. The car now lives at my parents’ place. I considered renting or borrowing a car and Ian talked about getting a ride from someone headed in that direction, but no easy and cheap solution made itself immediately obvious. That is until Ian found out about the Parkbus.

Parkbus is an amazing service that takes you from downtown Toronto (and now Ottawa too I believe) to one of several different park destinations. It’s a fair price and there’s plenty of room for your gear and usually even for your bike as well. We had found our solution, but it got even better. Parkbus was looking for volunteers to confirm passenger lists, help people load their things on to the bus, and answer any questions anyone might have. It sounded like a really fun way to help out a great service that we were really happy to have found and, amazingly, volunteers get a free ride. It was settled immediately. Ian took a ride up and back to try it out and had a fun time just riding the bus, so we signed up as volunteers and our trip was set.

There was one thing left I had to deal with before I was ready to get out into the woods. Last Christmas, one of my younger brothers started playfully mocking the state of my shoes as I was packing up to leave my parents’ house after my holiday visit. My shoes were filthy and full of holes. I think you could see my feet through them and they probably didn’t smell great but I was too cheap to buy new ones. My brother took me into the garage and gifted me an old pair of running shoes that, despite being his lawn-mowing shoes for many months, were in far better condition than what I was wearing. So now it was August and I was still wearing those shoes, with fresh holes and the same grass-stains.

During a recent visit they made to Toronto I playfully guilt-tripped my parents into giving me money for new shoes, this involved a lot of squealing in a cockney accent about being used to feeling the cold grime of city streets on my bare skin, and how I really don’t need shoes and not to worry about me. I probably called my dad “guv’nah.” My parents agreed to subsidize the purchase of a decent pair of shoes. God bless us everyone.

As I have mentioned before, I’ve recently started getting sucked into many aspects of  the “primal” or “paleo” lifestyle. The diet has been the major change so far, but I’d also been reading and thinking a lot about minimalist footwear. It should go without saying that I’m not a doctor, but I feel the need to include that disclaimer as many forums and comment sections on articles about barefoot running and minimalist footwear contain an astonishing amount of vitriol. It seems obvious to me that the human body evolved over millions of years to work in a certain way, and that changing the way your feet and legs work from what they do naturally can’t be good for you. A cushioned shoe encourages heel strikes when running, bypassing the natural shock-absorption capabilities of the foot and sending the energy of the impact straight into the knee where it doesn’t belong. However, like I said, I’m not a doctor or anything.

As I was doing research on just what kind of shoe I wanted I kept coming across disclaimers about how I would need to give myself lots of time to adjust to minimalist footwear. I read about all the different types of injuries I was going to give myself by over-exerting myself without “proper” shoes. I ignored all those warnings completely. I’ve gone barefoot whenever possible for quite some time and I’m not a very hardcore runner so I figured I would probably be fine. Rather than “taking it easy” and giving my body time to “adjust” I decided to immediately start wearing the new shoes all day to break them in before the trip and then go on long hikes through the woods for several days in a row. I think I went for a 1-2km jog in them the first or second day.

I was torn between the Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport and the FiveFingers Spyridon LS. The Spyridons specifically say they are for the trail and have a slightly thicker sole than the Komodos, but they suffer the same drawback as many of the Vibram shoes in that they look absolutely ridiculous. The Komodos felt comfortable and even though I was worried they might be too thin for hiking I was planning on wearing them for normal every-day use after the trip and I found their design less flashy, so I decided to risk it. Most Vibram shoes seem to be designed to draw attention to themselves; They scream “hey everyone, look at these crazy shoes I’m wearing! Look! Toes!” The mens Komodos are mostly black. I got them on clearance at MEC and blacked out the material between the toes to make them even more subtle. I was ready.

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Ian and I prepared gigantic bags of trail mix after a trip to Bulk Barn and started getting psyched up for our trip. The bus leaves Toronto fairly early in the morning. Being a volunteer meant travelling to the first stop it makes in the city, even though the second stop was much closer to where I live. Getting up earlier than usual made the whole thing more exciting, almost like Christmas. Taking the Parkbus was a great experience. All the passengers were friendly, as was the driver, everyone on the bus seemed to be in a really good mood. Why wouldn’t they be? They were going camping.

Ian and I disembarked at the Lake of Two Rivers campground, then walked along a short trail to the Mew Lake campgrounds where we picked up our back-country permit. We then hiked in to our site on Provoking Lake. We had discussed a basic plan for our trip but had been unsure of how long the trails would take. The Algonquin website rates the Highland Backpacking Trail as “difficult” and we weren’t sure what that really meant. It turns out that “difficult” really does mean difficult. We hiked over a variety of different surfaces and gained and lost quite a bit of elevation at near 90° angles in places.


The new shoes felt great, though I did start to develop a blister on one heel. Our campsite was on a beautiful spot and  I wasted little time getting in the lake for a swim. We had brought in a small amount of meat to eat for the first day so we had sausages for dinner and when I went to hang the food-bag out of reach of any bears that might show up I discovered something about the FiveFingers that I had never seen mentioned anywhere; they are excellent for climbing trees.

View from the tree

View from the tree

I am a very amateur astronomy enthusiast and was excited to get a decent look at the night sky after spending so long in the glare of Toronto. Unfortunately we were about a week late for the Perseid meteor shower, it was a full moon and was mostly overcast. I was hopeful conditions would improve by the end of the trip. Unfortunately it didn’t get much better while we were there.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Something we accidentally left around the campfire attracted a small animal in the middle of the night and I was awakened by sounds of rummaging. I got up and ran out of the tent clapping and yelling and it made a hasty retreat. I only realized the next morning that I was lucky it wasn’t a porcupine. Getting stuck with a bunch of quills would not have been a fun start to the trip.

Handsome woodsmen

Handsome woodsmen

For our first full day we headed to a nearby lookout where I was pleasantly surprised to find I had cell service. I made a quick call to my girlfriend to let her know I was alive and then we started on the small loop around Provoking lake, which we figured was about 10-11km.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren't carrying any weight that day though.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren’t carrying any weight that day though.

The forest is beautiful. I was amazed by the chaotic variety in the types of vegetation we passed through. Whenever you see forests depicted in art they are always fairly uniform, but walking through just a small portion of Algonquin we passed through a wide array of areas that could have convincingly played completely different forests in a movie.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

I was already loving the shoes after the first day, but going on a long hike without a pack really convinced me of how fantastic they were. I felt like I was much more in touch with my environment. I could feel the different textures and materials I was walking over in a way I’d never experienced without worrying about cutting the bottom of my feet before. It added a whole new layer to the sensory experience of exploring such varied terrain. There were areas where the ground was mostly made of tree roots, there were squishy, muddy sections, places where the trail was mostly a thick, soft bed of pine needles, and even parts where the trail cut over an exposed rock-face and formed what looked and felt just like a city sidewalk except that it was bordered by lichen.

Natural sidewalk

I felt light on my feet and completely free. I found that the FiveFingers made me more conscious of where I was putting my feet rather than trudging through everything in normal hiking boots. I also discovered another unadvertised perk of the toe shoes; sometimes adorable bits of foliage get stuck in between your toes for you to save and appreciate later.

We returned to our campsite with a lot of day left and I went for a swim and spontaneously decided I was going to head out to the small island out nearer to the middle of the lake. It ended up being almost completely caked in bird droppings, probably from the lone gull I had seen standing on it earlier, but it still afforded an interesting new perspective on the lake. I rested in the shallows around the island for a while before starting the swim back to the campsite where we built a small fire, ate our dinner and cracked open the two small books we had brought along; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the Tao Te Ching, both of which are excellent reading material for the end of a long day exploring the wilderness. I slept very well that night.

Waking up the third morning was a wonderful feeling. Realizing after such a full first day the day before and realizing that I had two full days left to enjoy made me indescribably happy. We mostly stayed in the vicinity of our campsite, swimming, reading, napping, and checking out the surrounding, unoccupied sites. We ended up convinced that we had made the right choice and picked the best one available. A lone hiker walked past our site sometime in the evening.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

The fourth day, our last full day in the park, started off rainy. We had planned for this contingency and were ready to relax in the tent and read, but the sky cleared quickly and we decided to head out and try to find  a waterfall marked on the map. We failed in our quest but still had a satisfying hike anyways. Sometimes the maps aren’t super reliable as far as pointing out places of interest, and one of the other Parkbus volunteers that I met on the ride up makes and sells his own maps of the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t have his map.

My observation of the day was that the most diverse part of the forest is in relatively open areas where nothing has grown higher than 5-10cm yet. Nothing has a real lead on everything else in the race towards the sunlight and you get a miniature preview of everything that might end up dominating that section of the forest months or years later.

The next day we packed up our site early in the day and hiked back towards the highway to get picked up by the bus. We met a couple more cool Parkbus volunteers who had rode up and then we started loading peoples’ packs into the bus and we were on our way back to the city. It was very strange to drive back into the city during rush hour. Our driver handled the traffic really well and being a passenger was completely stress free, but I did joke with Ian about having been transformed into a wild person and not being able to cope with civilization any more. I think we said something along the lines of “all this…this is the real wilderness man, it’s a spiritual wilderness… you call this ‘civilization?’ This traffic jam isn’t civilized at all.”

I spent the next few days coming down off of my nature-induced high and immediately started planning for what my next trip would be like. First, I would be sure to try to coincide my trip with good star-gazing conditions and any notable astronomical events if possible. Second, I would think about some different choices for gear. If I had unlimited resources I could spend a small fortune at MEC, but I think the items at the top of my list include a Hennessy Hammock (our MEC tent was great but using a two man tent isn’t as comfortable as it should be for the hassle of carrying even a very light tent) a Platypus Gravityworks filter (boiling water was a hassle and we think using iodine aqua tabs may have been causing some gastric discomfort) a headlamp with a red light option for preserving night vision, and I think I would like to try the Vibram Spyridons if I got the chance. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed just moving around in the forest and think I could get really into a more minimalist set up. My girlfriend and I recently made a big purchase of grass-fed beef and were given a dehydrator so I’m imagining a very light food-bag full of starvation rations of homemade beef jerky and little else.

For now I am back in the city for the foreseeable future, but I am fantasizing about my return to the woods. I’m especially glad that Parkbus exists and will be able to get me there and I look forward to volunteering with them again.

Next time I’m in the park I’m going to try harder to see a moose. That was a bit of a let down. Though we did see some evidence of beavers at one point.

Beaver dam

Beaver dam


“Thus spoke Zarathustra, and he left his cave, glowing and strong as a morning sun that comes out of dark mountains.”

Questions For The Well-Intentioned

In Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized on 2012/03/07 at 23:13

I am impressed. This morning I woke up to a Facebook news feed filled with acquaintances sharing the Kony 2012 campaign from Invisible Children; then I even overheard two separate conversations about Kony while walking down Bloor street. This is clearly a very effective viral campaign. What was a relatively obscure conflict that has been raging in central Africa for over twenty years is suddenly the thing to be talking about. 


So why am I so unhappy about it? This is the question I’ve been asking myself all day.


I was originally planning to write about the various criticisms that have been levelled against Invisible Children as an organization. However, I don’t think I really have anything substantial to add on that front. I don’t know anything about Invisible Children or the LRA that hasn’t already been presented in various locations. I’m not going to get into looking over what Invisible Children actually spends their money on. I’m not going to share my thoughts on this. I’m not even going to talk about who Kony and the LRA are. What I’m interested in is the wild enthusiasm for this campaign erupting all over social media and around me as I walk down the street and what that enthusiasm says about us as a society.

 Let’s make one thing clear, the Kony 2012 campaign wants you to support further western military intervention in an ongoing conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Ignoring the fact that there have already been (spectacularly failed) attempts by foreign forces to capture or kill Joseph Kony, we should ask if that’s something we should really be getting excited about.

It’s easy for pacifists like myself to criticise the call to war when the target is someone like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadafi. It’s easy to be cynical about imperious American elites who claim to be concerned with atrocities committed by dictators who happen to control vast amounts of valuable resources. But what about these friendly-looking young people, with their cute kids and swelling music, urging us to deploy military “advisors” to an area of the world already so ravaged by war as to make it of little conceivable value to American interests ? How can I NOT want American boots on the ground and American weapons, technology, and military expertise in the hands of the people committed to hunting down and killing such a terrible person as Joseph Kony?

 Before I answer that I feel it’s necessary to say that, obviously, Joseph Kony is a terrible person, guilty of some of the most despicable crimes imaginable. In a perfect world he would be brought to justice swiftly and with as little bloodshed as possible.

 We don’t live in a perfect world.

 Let’s put this all in perspective. There are currently somewhere between 2 and 3 million American personnel deployed around the world, operating out of hundreds of bases on every continent.  The US can deploy troops or rain down destruction remotely literally anywhere with very little notice. The western military-industrial complex is a vast, awesome machine the likes of which has never existed before in history. The US wields an almost unimaginable power and does so first and foremost in the name of protecting American interests. The Kony 2012 campaign accepts this, embraces it, and wants you to get excited about the power that it gives YOU as a citizen of a democracy to project your values and your desires onto the rest of the world.

 This is my problem with the reaction to the [very well executed] plea from Invisible Children to increase pressure on the American government to take out Joseph Kony. 

 Let’s not forget that the political chaos and resulting violence that has plagued countries like Uganda for so long, can largely be traced back to the mess left by retreating colonial powers. The image of idealistic young westerners saving African children is awkward enough as it is, but adding armed soldiers and high-tech weaponry should be enough to make anyone think twice about the bottom line of what Invisible Children wants us to do. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to occur to many of us. The idea of an increased, sustained military effort on the part of the west to capture or kill Joseph Kony makes us feel good about the leviathan of American military hegemony. When an issue seems as black and white as Invisible Children would have us believe, we allow ourselves to be whipped into a hawkish frenzy which feeds back into our hope that this leviathan created in our name can be put to good use; that the American empire can be a force for good; that our way of life is not selfish and destructive; that WE are good.

 There are troublesome questions to be asked, like:


Won’t hunting down a warlord who uses child soldiers by definition involve having to kill many of those child soldiers to get to him?


Doesn’t western intervention in religious and ethnically charged conflicts in developing countries always cause unintended consequences such as further radicalization of local populations, collateral damage, and civilian casualties?


Haven’t the LRA’s enemies been accused of similarly horrendous crimes, including the use of child soldiers?


When will the need for a constant American military presence in global trouble spots end?


When we take the time to ask these sorts of questions,  we risk not only blunting our enthusiasm for the continued use of the Gyge’s ring called the US military, we risk questioning our privileged place in the world.

 I’m not saying I necessarily oppose many of Invisible Children’s aims. I’m not saying I  don’t appreciate the skill with which they have brought such an important issue to the attention of such a wide audience.

I am saying, however, that the oversimplification of a situation fraught with so many moral dilemmas and the resulting unquestioning enthusiasm for the use of American military might on the part of so many people should be deeply disturbing to anyone who values critical thought or who questions the idea that human rights can be effectively defended by violence.

 I for one will not be supporting Invisible Children in their efforts to use American military power to chase Joseph Kony through the jungles of central Africa, no matter how well produced their documentaries. I deplore his crimes just as much as you do, but the assumptions the good people at Invisible Children have made about the ability of well-intentioned liberal westerners like us to solve the world’s problems with firepower are too much for me. 

 Before giving Invisible Children money to make more movies or telling Bono and Obama that you want Joseph Kony dead or captured at any cost, I encourage you to think about these questions that have been troubling me all day.

Why the O’Donnell story on Gawker is worth talking about.

In Politics on 2010/10/30 at 01:30

I was just having a conversation with someone about a state-level politician I’ve met. I was expressing annoyance at the way that American politicians, especially those on the right, often prominently feature pictures of their children in their campaign materials. The politician in question (who self-identifies with the Tea Party movement) always has photos of his kids all over his stuff and I take this as a sort of conservative code meaning that he has “family values.” I’m sure lots of politicians on both sides of the aisle do this but I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that it happens more often with conservatives. The conversation moved on from there to the broader topic of right-wing politicians inserting their opinions on what I think are entirely private values into their campaign rhetoric. I ended up quipping that I thought it was entirely appropriate when  sexual scandals, or any private information at all having to do with their supposed values, became public.

I do not hold all politicians to the same standard on this. If you never mention family values, if you never pass any judgment on the private lives of others, if you never bring up questions of sexual morality in your political career, then I don’t care what you do in your private life. Have as many orgies as you want, sleep with whomever you want, heck you could even engage in bestiality for all I care, if you didn’t make your sexual morality an issue on the campaign trail then it’s none of my business. If however, you subtly (or not so subtly) make sexual morality at all a part of your campaign platform, then I believe I have the right to hear about any intimate details of your sex life that become public for whatever reason. Anything at all. I figure it’s not that bad for me to be interested in it since as far as I’m concerned you brought it up first.

This all took place before I heard anything about the “I had a one night stand with Christine O’Donnell” story on If you haven’t read it, the story is basically that some guy claims he had a drunken night out with O’Donnell a few years ago on Halloween. They’d basically just met, but that didn’t stop her from coming on to him, going back to his apartment with him, getting naked, and spending the night. He even has drunk looking pictures of her in a Halloween costume to prove it. The first hand account includes what I think are some unnecessary comments about her body hair, but overall I found the piece interesting and significant.

The story has gotten almost unanimous condemnation from various prominent sources, including the National Organization for Women. I think this is undeserved. The piece was rude, and the guy comes off sounding like a jerk, but he doesn’t say anything overly misogynistic as far as I’m concerned. I probably wouldn’t hang out with him if he talked like that around me, but it’s the way I’d expect someone, who brought home a drunk older woman he barely knew and got naked with her on Halloween, to talk. There wasn’t anything in it that I thought was too offensive to publish on Everybody condemning this story seems to have completely missed the point, that being that Christine O’Donnell is the one who brought it up in the first place. She has crafted her public image to include a very specific sort of sexual morality. Conservative politicians in general in the US are in the habit of making a huge issue out of people’s sex lives, they get elected partially based on the idea that they are out there protecting “values” including sexual values. They work to curtail certain rights based on sexual orientation, they fight for abstinence-only education, they rail against pornography, prostitution, masturbation, and then act surprised when people decide to hold them to their own standards.

Three years ago Christine O’Donnell had a harmless night out with a younger man. She had a little fun, got naked, and made personal decisions about where to draw the line sexually (if you haven’t read the piece, she apparently didn’t end up having intercourse that night), and that’s fine. In fact I think it’s better than fine. Good for her. It wasn’t anybody’s business, and it would have been pretty sleazy for anyone to publish the story (and I’m not saying the way it was written wasn’t sleazy anyway) had Christine O’Donnell not brought it up first. As soon as the American right-wing stops talking so much about how deplorable other peoples’ sex lives are, I’ll quit being interested in theirs.


I recommend reading the follow-up on Gawker: Why We Published the Christine O’Donnell Story which explains in more detail why they published it. I have to say I agree with most everything they had to say about it.

Who put that border there? US-Mexico relations in context

In Politics on 2010/09/16 at 11:55

Check out Chris Arsenault’s article US drones prowl Mexico bicentennial on Al Jazeera English for a reminder of what’s really going on at the US-Mexico border.

Anti-immigrant, isolationist “border hawks” play on the fears of the ignorant for political gain and deliberately ignore history as well as the facts on the ground. Arsenault outlines the sick reality of the increasing and completely unjustified militarisation of America’s southern border. Land that was stolen from Mexico in a trumped up 19th century war is now being “protected” from Mexicans impoverished by a 20th century trade agreement using 21st century technology and techniques perfected in more recent American imperialist wars.

Some will choose to ignore history. What’s done is done and maybe we shouldn’t care about the massive historical injustice being done to Mexicans, the important thing is to protect Americans from the violence spilling over the border. This might be a somewhat legitimate viewpoint if it weren’t for the fact that talk of increasing violence and crime in the south-western US just isn’t true. As Arsenault points out, the four large US cities with the lowest rates of violent crime are all close to the Mexican border. The border region is not a hotbed of violence, in fact it’s one of the safest places in the country. This doesn’t fit well into the Wild West/Gang Invasion/Mos Eisley Cantina (by the way Han shot first!) stories that right-wing fear mongers have introduced into the discourse, so they just ignore them. The real source of fears of dangerous Mexicans coming across the border isn’t facts or logic, it’s racism and bigotry.

It’s easy for people on this side of the wall to demonize and fear the rest of the world, but anyone willing to open their mind a little, learn some basic history, and get over their xenophobia will soon see that militarising the US-Mexico border can’t solve anything.

America’s Crippled Democracy: Real Choices in West Virginia

In Personal, Politics, West Virginia on 2010/09/13 at 16:23

Governor Joe Manchin is the democratic nominee to run for the US Senate seat from West Virginia previously held by the late Robert C. Byrd. He will face Republican candidate John Raese in the midterm elections this November. It’s apparently a fairly tight race at this point but I’m assuming Manchin will win. This is an example of how American democracy has been crippled almost to the point of being nonexistent.

All of my progressive West Virginian friends seem to hate Governor Joe Manchin. I never really bothered to learn why. He was the governor of the state where I lived and went to school for several years but I didn’t really know anything about him. I knew I probably wouldn’t like him but I didn’t really want to talk to my friends about what their problems with him were. I couldn’t vote in West Virginia, or anywhere in the US for that matter (I’m a legal permanent resident but not a citizen), plus many West Virginians are fiercely (and oftentimes I would say illogically) protective about their State, so that making negative remarks about the governor, or any elected official, might result in a non-native being politely told to mind their own business, even if all parties present are in agreement on the issues.

It seems like many progressive West Virginians struggle with being ashamed of their State’s socio-political and cultural backwardness while at the same time feeling very proud of and genuinely loving many things about their home. I’m not saying that any of my friends were ever rude to me about politics, but there have been several times when I felt that some of my native West Virginian friends were perhaps a bit uncomfortable with my criticism of West Virginia. West Virginia is of course the butt of a lot of jokes, sometimes but most often not, deservedly so. I understand why a progressive West Virginian might feel a tad awkward about their extremely liberal Canadian friend bashing on West bygum Virginny and I want to say before I move on that most of what I know of West Virginia is great. All of the West Virginians I know have what I would consider the normal amount of teeth, none of them have married, or are at all attracted to their siblings or cousins, they all have lovely homes, and I find their gentle Appalachian lilt quite pleasant. It’s a beautiful place that’s home to a lot of people that I love very much.

Now that I have that out of the way…

West Virginia is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with American politics. It’s a place suffering environmental devastation at the hands of some very rich people in the energy industry. It’s one of the poorest and least educated places in America. West Virginians are literally suffering and dying all the time because of the coal industry, the landscape is being devastated at an increasing rate and, to be quite frank, most West Virginians are either too poor, too ignorant, or else too jaded to really care.

America’s commitment to Two-Party politics ensures that this wont change any time soon. When I read that Governor Manchin was the democratic candidate for the Senate I decided I should finally find out what his platform was like. I wasn’t too surprised. Then I decided to look at his opponent John Raese’s platform. Also not surprised. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It seemed that West Virginians had a fairly simple choice in this election:  Vote for the wealthy, pro-life, anti-gun-control, anti-gay marriage,pro-war, fiscal conservative, coal-loving politician? Or the other wealthy, pro-life, anti-gun-control, anti-gay-marriage, pro-war, fiscal conservative, coal-loving politician. Of course if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find subtle differences between what they would be like as Senators, although it was a bit of a challenge for me as Joe Manchin’s Campaign website doesn’t even have an “issues” section.

It seemed to me that there was no real choice for West Virginians in this election. The differences between the two candidates were so small that they’re not even worth mentioning. I decided not to be so defeatist. I know some very intelligent people who are very politically savvy who have become so jaded by the lack of real choice in American politics that they haven’t voted in years. They’ve realized that democracy in America is a sham and they’ve given up. I have always chastised these people, telling them that it is because intelligent people like them voluntarily give up their most cherished civil right  that American democracy has been allowed to become so broken. There had to be another option for West Virginia. I had to be able to say something constructive about West Virginian politics. I have found something to say.

A simple google search of “WV Third party Candidates” brought Jesse Johnson to my attention. It seems Johnson is the perennial candidate in every election for West Virginia’s Mountain Party. Johnson received something like 4% of the vote when he ran for governor and he is running this year for US Senate. I’ll let Johnson’s campaign website speak for itself on his views (since his website actually explains his what his platform is, unlike Manchin’s), what I really want to talk about here is why I think voting for a third party candidate who has no chance of actually winning is important.

Jesse Johnson is not going to be a US Senator, or hold any high office, any time soon. So why should progressive West Virginians bother to get out and vote for him, contribute to his campaign, or tell anyone about him? Because change doesn’t happen just because of one election, no matter what Obama08 tried to tell you. Huge changes in a democracy take time.

It will take many years and many elections, but one day West Virginians will have to start taking the Mountain Party’s views seriously. The more people who vote now when they think it doesn’t matter the faster the day will come when real choices exist for West Virginia. Johnson may only get 4% of the vote again, or maybe he’ll get 5% if enough jaded liberals and ex-hippies (there are a lot of them living in the woods of West Virginia) decide to go vote come November. Now let’s say Johnson gets 4.5% of the vote and Manchin wins by a margin of 3-5%, a not unreasonable scenario. If the margin of victory is around the same amount of votes that got “thrown away” on third party candidates, the smarter mainstream politicians will start to pay attention to what those voters are saying, because they have the power to spoil a future election. Manchin and his kind don’t care if you hate mountain top removal mining as long as you stay home disgusted, but if you get out and throw your vote away on Jesse Johnson, you might screw with the election math so much that it becomes a problem for someone. When the results are tallied everyone will notice that the Mountain Party got 5% instead of 4%, then next time they get 7% instead of 5% and so on.

The bottom line is that nobody cares what you think if you’re not voting. Someone once told me that the only effective way to change a system is from the inside and I believe it. The only way to change West Virginia politics is to participate in West Virginia politics. It will take a long time. You will not see any results any time soon, but everything has to start somewhere.

Raise your hand and say that you want it to stop, be a part of that proud 5%. Don’t stay home and waste your vote, get out there and throw it away! Maybe some day it will have meant something.

Again: Mountain Party Website

Mountain Party Wikipedia

Jesse Johnson Senate Campaign

Jesse Johnson on Facebook