Archive for April, 2007

Superheroes and social change

This is for everyone who wonders what the idea of superheroes can possibly have to do with positive social change.

I was actually thinking of writing fiction about superheroes disillusioned with traditional ideas of “fighting crime” who actually hunker down and become activists — but truth, it seems, has got a run on fiction.

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1. There is a bunny in my neighbourhood. It comes out late at night and goes hop hop hop.

2. “What’s he going to do in the third one that he hasn’t done in the first two?” my dad asked, re: Spider-Man 3.

3. One of the many reasons McDonald’s burgers aren’t really burgers: they are easy to eat. That is, you can hold and eat them without stuff slipping and falling all over the place. (Also, they taste like crap.)

4. America lost its innocence on April 14, 2007. Just like it lost its innocence on September 11, 2001, and May 4, 1970. America did not lose its innocence in August 2005, or on May 14 and 15, 1970. So on, so forth. And that’s just in America.

5. I do believe I lost my humanity a long time ago.

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A worker died on Monday

A worker died on Monday. Early in the morning, in the subway somewhere between York Mills and Davisville. The media’s reaction seemed to be subdued, muted. No, I don’t mean about the train stoppage; no, that, after all, was a big deal. The coverage seemed to be more about those who were inconvenienced by the stoppage of transit than about the man who died.

And that got me thinking, this man died so that I could get to school. It’s that simple, that real, that concrete.

He’s not a solider who died supposedly defending an abstract notion (freedom; read: our own brand of terror) in some concocted war on an abstract noun (terror; read: someone else’s brand of freedom). He didn’t die protecting liberty, justice, civilization, or what have you.

It’s nothing that complicated, it’s very simple really: This man died so that you could go to school. Or so that you could go to work. Or to an interview. Or to a restaurant, a club, a bar, a party, a friend’s house, a shopping centre — from point A to point B — so that you could get to your university.

It’s real.

The man was crushed to death so that we could get to school.

Are any students at UofT going to get together and hold a vapid, self-indulgent, self-inflating vigil to commemorate his death? Are they going to start facebook groups and online ribbon campaigns about him?

Do you even know his name?

And yeah, what happened at VTech was bad, but it’s strange to imagine that the life of students in the United States somehow means a lot more than the life of students in, say, India, or Iraq, or Palestine, or Nigeria, or Indonesia, or Chile, or Peru, or Bolivia, so on, so forth — but most of their stories never get heard, they never get put on the front pages or even the back pages.

Or, like the worker in the subway, their stories are crowded out. How many times have you heard stories about oilfields in various countries being disturbed by local populations? Consider this NYT headline: “Growing Unrest Posing a Threat to Nigerian Oil” — that’s what it is, really, at the end of the day, it’s just business.

How many times have people complained about TTC Staff being overpaid? Can you look this dead man’s wife in the eye and tell her that her husband was overpaid? Tell their children that?

TTC Staff aren’t overpaid, they’re underpaid. And everyone else who doesn’t have a half-decent union fighting for them, or who are getting swept away by the tides of global capitalism, they’re even more underpaid. You want to know who’s overpaid? Some big fat old stupid white man (increasingly being replaced by others, other races, people from other parts of the world, etc.) sitting in an air-conditioned room far above the proceedings of the you and the me, the people on the streets, signing papers that signal the literal deaths of thousands and the slow deaths of thousands more. Those are the people who are getting overpaid. They don’t even earn the money they make, they steal it. They wouldn’t know a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay if it bit them in the ass. Those are the same people we, you and me, aspire to be.

No, instead, we look at the man on the street — standing in front of aggressive College St. traffic with a sign between him and hundreds of people with places to go and things to do in cars and a huge truck pulling tons of dirt out of an excavation site — we look at the man on the street and complain that he doesn’t do anything. Or we complain that he’s holding a coffee cup. Or we complain that he’s taking an extended break. Or we complain about there being more than one of them — you know the joke, there are three men, one to do the work, one to direct traffic, one to hold the coffee cups — what ignorance, what stark ignorance. What self-indulgent ignorance.

I saw this big, white, bearded guy on the subway once — he was wearing glasses, too. I was trying to read a book, and he was trying to engage people in conversation. He was trying to talk to them, and they were politely ignoring him or brushing him off. He seemed jovial. His hands were blackened, his clothes were, too. But he wasn’t a bum, no, he was obviously a manual labourer. At Kennedy station, when I put on my Spider-Man hat he commented on it. He talked about how he used to read the comics when he was young. How he couldn’t afford them anymore. How it was good that I was going to university. How I could get a good job. How money troubles hit you when you have a family to support. He worked for Toronto Hydro, fixing cables, lines, poles, or something. He was trying to talk to people to make them smile. He thanked me for talking to him, and he told me to keep on smiling.

And we complain about workers getting overpaid. When really, they are the ones who keep us afloat, who keep our miserable, fat, starved skinny, superficial, ignorant, self-indulgent, Starbucks latte, MP3 player, Cosmo magazine, Gucci glasses, shiny laptop lives afloat.

And when they ask for their rights, when CN workers strike, the placid, corporate bought government makes their strike illegal. It legislates for them to go back to work. So that the economy doesn’t suffer. “The economy.” The almighty economy. Yes, other workers will suffer, they’ll lose business. Yes, the wheels of industry will be interrupted and impeded. Yes. But really, that’s not the problem the government has — it couldn’t care less about the workers in the first place, or it wouldn’t have gotten rid of regressive labour legislation and it would enforce whatever is left, rather than passing ad hoc legislations to protect “the economy” — which really means protecting the fat pigs and keeping them in power as well. That’s “the economy.”

Yeah, a worker died on Monday. He was crushed by a machine the size of a car. They couldn’t move his body for several hours.

And we don’t even know his name.

So that we could get to school.

So that I could hand in a paper — on Marxism, no less. How hard is it, really, to theorize or imagine class struggle? It is here, it is now, it is the lives we live and the deaths we die — the lives we ignore and the deaths we ignore. That is class struggle. That is sexism. That is racism. That is the nature of our shallow lives.

Antonio Almeida died on Monday. He had a wife, a son, and a daughter, a mother and a father, friends and colleagues. He was 38 years old.

Antonio Almeida
Antonio Almeida

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Children’s Cartoons & Utopia

From a paper I just finished:

Maggie is a five-year old cartoon character who imagines a space called Nowhere Land. At one point she organizes her imaginary friends and they collectively dig a big hole; even Rudy the Mouse (whose hat doesn’t come off) is given a spoon so as to help. When they’ve finished digging the hole, her friends inquire as to its purpose. Maggie is temporarily perplexed, but responds by asking if her friends had fun digging the hole, to which they respond in the affirmative. The point of digging the hole, Maggie explains, was to have fun.

We see that Nowhere Land is a utopia, it is the space from which Maggie articulates and imagines her desires, and the content of her utopia is a critique of capitalist society: the idea that labour should be undertaken for personal fulfillment echoes Marx’s critique of the alienation of the labourer from his or her labour, and offers a critique of a capitalist society where labour is a means to an “end” as a perpetually unfulfilled consumer.

In the next vignette of that episode, Maggie and her friends go to rebuild the home of Sidestep (the crab) whose sand house has been washed away by a wave. After they build the house they put a red star(fish?) above the entrance.

Whoever wrote that episode was clearly a socialist.

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When I first saw this Indian commercial for Happydent White Chewing Gum I was horrified:

But we can also look at this ad as a critical allegory for — you guessed it — capitalism. What’s horrifying about this ad isn’t the bald exploitation of humans for the pleasure of a rich, spoiled, elite few — that happens everyday — what’s horrifying is that the ad lays it bare in front of our eyes so that we can’t turn away from it and pretend it doesn’t exist.

I was walking through the mall and looking around at all the people happily spending to buy shiny, wonderful, beautiful, classy products, and I was wondering why I even bother criticizing a society that can make so many people happy (note, I was looking at in-store displays of happy babies and smiling, emaciated models). I was in one of those “what the hell am I complaining about” moods. That’s when I realized that all these displays mask exploitation — the very simple exploitation of those in the Third World, yes, but also the exploitation of those buying these products, on credit, or on whatever meagre earnings they have. Many more, of course, weren’t there to buy, but to window shop or to eat cheap fast food.

How wonderful would it be, after all, if the next time we went to a GAP store, we also managed to see how how those products were made? Would we be horrified, just like this ad makes us react? I don’t know. Mark Andrejevic talks about how even though many of us know that this kind of exploitation exists, we see no alternatives to it. We are shown no alternatives to it, capitalism is naturalized such that we accept it implicitly — we buy from malls — though we may criticize it explicitly.

More often, what we end up doing is criticizing the discursive representations, such as this Happydent ad, rather than criticizing the phenomenon itself. And then, even when we do criticize the phenomenon itself, we have no means to materially change it. At least, that’s what we think.

[On another note, if I do a few more, I could probably write a paper on television ads as symptoms of and allegories for capitalism.]

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Har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ke tu kya hai
Tum hi kaho ke yeh andaaz-e-guftgoo kya hai

Everything gets lost in translation.

To every statement you say, “What are you?” [“Who are you to say?”]
You tell me what manner of speech this is

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Ph.D. & Eating Apes

An African-American associate professor at a liberal arts college in the 1960s points to his own appointment as an example of progress. Malcolm X asks him:

“Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s?”

He said something like, “I believe that I happen not to be aware of that”—you know, one of those ultra-proper-talking Negroes.

And I laid the word down on him, loud: “Nigger!

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 290.

By explaining that white racists (and if we loosen the definition of racist, we can assume that’s the majority of Americans) still consider him a nigger, Malcolm brings into sharp relief the fact that such “progress” is literally skin deep. As long as you have white racists, as long as the system that creates disparities and allows racists to continue to be racist exists, there is no real progress; all there is is window dressing.

We have to consider, then, how far such “progress” has come.

Eating Apes is a book by Dale Peterson, a journalist (or writer or something) about how people in certain parts of Africa eat apes. (I’m reading the book for a History course on how people in the West view subjectivity in sub-Saharan Africa.) For Peterson, this is unconscionable and — because (among other things) it is so much like eating humans — even immoral:

In the big cities of Central Africa, middle-class people pay a premium for bushmeat, including the meat of apes. […] Thus, we see that the problem [of eating apes] is deeper than material history and that cultural values are clearly as much a root cause as poverty.

– Dale Peterson, Eating Apes, pp. 200-201.

Here, I see Peterson saying the same thing Malcolm pointed out white racists say: It doesn’t matter how rich black people get, they’re still niggers. (In this case, because eating apes is part of their “cultural values”.)

When Peterson refers to material history, it appears that his scope quite narrowly refers to the history of poverty in Africa (or parts of Africa). It doesn’t refer to the material conditions through which many of the people in Africa live — the material conditions that give birth to cultural values. (Where else do cultural values come from? Primordial backwardness?) One of these material conditions is, or was, the kinds of animal meat available for consumption. This differs remarkably from the kind of meat available to those in the West.

But wait, Peterson goes on to explain that:

Recent advances in Western scientific disciplines tell us that the great apes are far closer to human than anyone had previously imagined. […] Killing and eating [apes] amounts to killing and eating animals shockingly close to human. Such is the thinking, one of the several reasons for deep concern about the extent of the slaughter of apes in Central Africa [….]

Peterson, p. 205.

So the reason people in the West don’t eat apes is because they are shockingly close to humans. That’s it. This brilliant logic also explains why most people in the West don’t eat frogs, horses, donkeys, rats, grasshoppers, cockroaches and beluga whales. They are all shockingly close to humans — as revealed by advances in Western science.

Peterson also refers to hunted animal meat as “bushmeat”. But is that what he calls deer? or quail? No, he doesn’t even bring those things up. If we disregard conservation statuses, what’s the moral difference between someone in Canada shooting a deer for consumption and someone in Africa shooting an elephant for consumption? The very use of that term, bushmeat, is remarkably patronizing and contributes to the process of othering in which Peterson indulges.

Not that I advocate eating apes. I just don’t really see the problem with eating apes if there’s no problem with, say, eating chickens (whose DNA is shockingly close to that of humans).

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Mere Geet

Mere sarkash taraane sun ke duniya ye samajhti hai
Ke shaayad mere dil ko ishq ke naghmon se nafrat hai
Mujhe hungaama-e-jang-o-jadal se kaif milta hai
Meri fitrat ko khoon-rezi ke afsaanon se raghbat hai

Magar ai kaash dekhen voh meri pursoz raaton ko
Main jab taaron pe nazrein gaad kar aansoo bahaata hoon
Tasavvur ban ke bhooli vaardaatein yaad aati hain
To soz-o-dard ki shuddat se pahron tilmilaata hoon

Main shaayar hoon, mujhe fitrat ke nazaaron se ulfat hai
Mera dil dushman-e-naghma saraai ho nahin sakta
Javaan hoon main, javaani naazishon ka ek toofan hai
Meri baaton mein rang-e-paarsaai ho nahin sakta

Mere sarkash taraanon ki haqeeqat hai to itni hai
Ke jab main dekta hoon bhook ke maare kisaanon ko
Ghareebon ko, muflison ko, bekason ko, besahaaron ko
To dil taab-e-nishaat-e-bazm-e-ishrat nahin sakta
Main chaahon bhi to khwaabaavar taraane ga nahin sakta

– Sahir Ludhianvi

Sahir was one of the greats of modern Urdu poetry; a Leftist, he made his comfortable living writing songs for Hindi films (e.g., Pal do pal ka shaayar).

When the world hears my angry songs, it assumes
That perhaps my heart abhors songs of love
That I derive pleasure from the turmoil of war and conflict
That by nature, I get pleasure from stories of bloodshed

Would that they could witness those anguished nights
When I cast my eyes on the stars and weep
When forgotten encounters become remembered imaginations
When for hours, I tremble with the intensity of my grief

I am a poet, I have great love for the sights of nature
My heart can never be the enemy of song writing
I am young, youth is a storm of passion
My words can never be coloured by temperance

If there is a reason for my angry songs, it is this
That when I see the farmers dying of hunger
The poor, the oppressed, the helpless
My heart cannot bear the celebration of high culture
Even if I wish, I cannot give voice to dreamy songs

– Translated by Ali Husain Mir & Raza Mir*

* But I made some modifications.

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Comics & Art

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