Wandata’s Trial and today’s Canada

While reading the chapter that informed this morning’s post, I was particularly struck by the number of parallels between Manitoba in 1902 and Canada in 2013. Now, to be sure, this is more than likely to be a big ol’ ball of confirmation bias – I have learned more about Canada’s history with First Nations in the past few months than I have in the preceding 28-odd years, so I’m sure a lot of my facts will seem to resemble each other more than they might actually in ‘real life’. That being said, there were a number of things that stuck out to me that I want to reflect on here.

First, I must once again express my shock at the racist ethnocentricity and quasi-cartoonish evil that is the banning of dancing. I am not sure why, but I honestly believed my country was never so laughably puritanical as to say that dancing threatened the moral fibre of adult human beings. Clearly I am not immune to the kind of self-flattering overestimation of Canada that I criticize in others. This new information does give me serious cause to drastically revise my estimation of Sir John A. Macdonald downward – he was not a man who was laudable or worthy of emulation, and that becomes clearer the more I learn about him. [Read more...]

#FuturamaArcher: Or, ‘Futurama: Noooooooope!’

Robert Reece of Furious and Brave and I have challenged each other to an essay-writing contest. Each of us has 2,000 words to write a persuasive essay defending the honour of the superiority of our favourite animated series. Robert has chosen Futurama, and I have chosen Archer. We have not seen each other’s essays in advance, nor co-ordinated in any way (aside from agreeing on publication date and length). His essay can be found here.

The Archer intro logo

When considering the comparative merits of any work of art, taste being subjective, it is necessary to develop a set of criteria by which the different works can be judged. In the absence of such criteria, any comparison swiftly becomes an exercise in who can express the most fervent support – a contest of fanaticism rather than a proper comparison. I must confess that, were this to be such a challenge, I would surely come up short – Robert is far more practiced at defending positions based on the strength of his emotion and passion alone. I am unfortunately forced to rely solely on facts and logic.

And it is based on fact and logic, limited and uninteresting though they may be, that I enthusiastically state unequivocally that Archer is a superior animated series to Futurama. Now, it behooves me to mention at this point that I have a deep personal affection for Futurama – I would not dream of arguing that it is a bad show. Nor would I argue that it has not made its contribution, such as it is, to our popular culture. Such an argument would not only be easily demonstrated as false, but it would be shockingly disingenuous. I am, in fact, a fan. That being said, I recognize superiority when I see it, and I simply cannot deny that Archer is a better show, for reasons I will detail below.

My first task is to establish a set of criteria by which the relative greatness of a work should be judged. Again, due to the subjective nature of taste, I will eschew things that are so obviously subjective as, for example, ‘which show is funnier’. Such a crude comparison is clearly not worthy of the refined and discerning audience of this piece (and besides, for that specific category, Archer would win in a walk). Instead, I offer these much more concrete categories for evaluation: [Read more...]

Black History Month: The Wandata Trial

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here.

It is either appalling ignorance on my part (if you wish to blame me) or abysmal historical instruction from our public school system (if you want to blame society) or both (if you want to be accurate) that made me completely unaware that, for the better part of a century, Canada outlawed aboriginal dance. I suppose it should come as no surprise that a country that would make a language illegal wouldn’t restrict that chauvinism to only one method of cultural expression, but for whatever reason I didn’t connect those two dots.

Backhouse invites us to acknowledge that dance is not simply a cultural quirk or an exotic way for aboriginal people to show off aspects of their heritage – they are an intrinsic part of how aboriginal people live their lives, participate in their history, and express their existential relationship to the land and their beliefs. Beyond that, the Grass Dance of the Dakota people was also a vital component of their economic and familial tradition and practices. Far from being an ancillary (but still important) method of artistic expression as is the European tradition, dance occupies a much more central niche in many aboriginal communities.

It is with this in the background that we turn our attention to the town of Rapid City, Manitoba in 1902, and the arrest of Wanduta, a Dakota elder (“Heyoka” is the title they used) for participating in a Grass Dance (also known as a Give-Away dance, due to the profligate exchange of gifts that occurs as part of the ceremony). The Dakota had been invited to perform their dance as part of hte Rapid City July Fair – a practice that was common. White settlers enjoyed the spectacle and exotic flavour of aboriginal dance, and paid handsomely to see it. While most dances were performed on reserves in cultural context, the Dakota outside of Rapid City were not averse to being part of the spectacle of the Fair. [Read more...]

Academic Blogging


For those of you who have never visited the excellent sociological blog Family Inequality, I suggest that you stop reading right now, and head on over there for an hour or two. Don’t worry about me, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your stay there, I know that I spend quite a bit of time there  (often time I don’t have) digging through the blog’s many, many entries. A while back, the blog’s author, Phillip Cohen, wrote a piece called “Should every sociologist blog?” that I shamelessly linked to my own blog. The thesis of the article was simple, is it in the interests of both sociologists and the public to encourage sociologists to blog about their research? Since I’m already doing that (in my own, rather less articulate way), I of course answered in the affirmative. For Cohen’s part there seems to be a bit more reservation about the whole idea, but I’ll leave it to him to make his own points. He’s better at it than I am.

Cohen’s question got me to thinking though: should blogging at the academic level – in all disciplines – be encouraged as a side-project for scholars? As it stands, blogging means precisely nothing on any academic’s CV, and there is therefore no real incentive for any academic to engage in it, outside of maybe their own passion for writing. But aside from filling a line on a CV, could academic blogging serve a purpose?

Hell yes, and here’s why.

Traditionally, academia has had the (fairly exaggerated) reputation as being the guardian of knowledge; a society’s culture, traditions, and memory are gathered, catalogued, and maintained by armies of scholars and researchers; scientists of all stripes, historians, anthropologists, literary theorists, etc. Of course the reputation is bullshit and much of a civilization’s knowledge is contained in the minds of non-academics everywhere; but while academics might not be the sole holders of knowledge, we do certainly hold a lot of it. It’s our job, and many of us are quite good at it.

Part of the disconnect between academia and the broader population rests in the severing of academic knowledge from other, more ‘everyday’ forms of knowing. How often do we hear the expression “oh sure they’re book-smart, but they’re not really street-smart”, or hear academia being described as an ‘ivory tower’, far removed from the affairs of the proles, toiling away far below? But the distinction between these two forms of knowing is largely artificial and it’s largely maintained by the often arcane semiotics of the various dialects of different academic disciplines. We love to make up new words and hurl them at each other, and each time we do – and each time we fail to explain to everyone else what those words mean – we further distance ourselves from our fellow citizens. Some academics, like the infamous Jacques Derrida, almost seemed to revel in their obtuseness, as though being cryptic was synonymous with being profound. And while the navel-gazing and word-play continued, many of our neighbours and friends began to lose interest in what we were talking about in the first place. Our debates take place in closed conferences and behind the paywalls of peer-reviewed journals, and our discoveries and carefully crafted ideas only ever interface with the public as short sound-bites – and only after they’ve been distorted and abridged by others. In short, academics are often dreadfully isolated from society, and it’s our own fault.

Blogging allows us to begin to change that. Blogs are a handy medium for allowing researchers and scholars to speak to the public in their own way, with their own idiosyncrasies, without having to go through someone else. Blogs allow the public to ask us questions or to challenge us directly, and they can be hopeful that we will respond (well, at least some of us). In other words, blogging can help to facilitate the return of academics into the mainstream of public discourse. Granted people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are already doing this, but he and people like him represent only the tiniest fraction of academics who ever take their research and love of educating public. Other venues, like TED talks can also help to make current research available to others, but they’re not the only way.

I’m not photogenic enough for television, and I don’t know that anyone would want to listen to me talk at them for any length of time, but I’m handy with a keyboard, and I can usually convey the substance of my own research to a broad audience fairly easily. As an academic, I feel that I have a moral obligation to take the knowledge and training I’ve received at public institutions and share it with my fellow citizens. Blogging helps me to do that.

So will blogging or some other form of (usually) non-paying, non-peer reviewed public academics be embraced by researchers any time soon? Well, probably not; as universities become increasingly corporatized and professor’s salaries and advancement are increasingly tied to their ability to churn out papers and books, the demands on individual academics’ time grow as well. Many universities now demand that the lion’s share of a professor’s day be dedicated to research and publication; a minority of time is devoted to the actual practice of educating. At the graduate level, fewer universities are even offering their students courses on how to be a good teacher. Instead, graduate students – MA and PhD alike – are indoctrinated into the world of ‘Publish or Perish‘, and if they happen to pick up some skill at teaching while they’re at it, well that’s just a happy bonus. Many current professors learned to teach only by emulating a past favourite professor and few will ever take a formal class about teaching pedagogy. At some universities, a professor’s teaching ability isn’t even a factor when determining tenure, promotion, or salary adjustment. Think about that for a second: your professors – if you’ve attended university – may likely have received zero attention or accolades for their teaching ability, because to the university, teaching ability is not important. It is a grim picture, if you are of the opinion that university professors ought to be responsible for educating their fellow citizens.

And so I’ll continue to blog. These days it seems that it’s the only way I can meet what I see as my obligation to educate.

Movie Friday: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Other America

There are few things that get me more irate than people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. as their ‘trump card’ for their argument. While I think Dr. King had some fantastic ideas in his time, he was looking at reality through a theological lens without the benefit of scientific training; furthermore, the world he knew is now more than 50 years old. To suggest that disagreeing with Dr. King in 2013 means that your argument is incorrect is a naked appeal to authority that happens far too frequently.

Even beyond that though, most of the quoting I come across is sliced out of a single speech (the ‘Dream’ speech), without even the courtesy or intellectual rigour to quote the lines in context of the rest of the speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

If someone wants to try and reconcile that passage with the idea that Dr. King was colour blind, they’re welcome to waste their time doing so. Also everyone is invited to evaluate whether or not the conditions that prompt that speech are radically or even meaningfully different than they were in 1963.

The fact is that Dr. King wrote more than one speech, and his beliefs went beyond simple platitudes of “colour of skin vs. content of character”. Failing to appreciate this not only gives us a skewed and wildly inaccurate view of both the man and his contribution to history, but it robs us of the wealth of thoughts he did contribute. So today I invite you to brew a cup of coffee, sit down somewhere comfortable, and watch the video linked here. [Read more...]

Real World Atheism: Crommunist in Chicago

Heads up to those of you living in the greater Chicago area – I will be appearing on a panel at DePaul University, called

Real World Atheism: A Panel on Godless Activism and Cultural Relevancy

Join the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, in association with the Secular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry, African Americans for Humanism, and the Women’s Center at DePaul as we host a panel of some of the best minds in the secular movement to talk about the state of atheism, its current predicaments regarding discrimination, and attempt to chart a path towards greater involvement in the world at large.

This event will be held in room 103 of DePaul’s Arts and Letters Hall, located at 2315 N Kenmore, Chicago, Illinois. The building is fully handicapable accessible, and accommodation can be provided upon request.

This event is free and open to the public.

When the above blurb says “best minds in the secular movement”, they’re talking entirely about my co-panelists: [Read more...]

Bravo to Canadian skeptics: Jenny is Dropped

About a week ago, I read that Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity face of the anti-vaccine movement, was going to be headlining an event called “Bust a Move” at the Ottawa Cancer centre. I was horrified, and spelled out my objections in a letter to their CEO:

Hello Ms. Eagan,

I am writing this letter to you to express my shock, disappointment, and outrage at Ottawa Cancer’s decision to host noted anti-vaccination activist and celebrity provocateur Jenny McCarthy as the face of its “Bust a Move” campaign. Ms. McCarthy’s actions over the past decade have revealed her to be deeply antipathetic to the process and institution of science – a process and institution that cancer patients and practitioners rely on for their lives and livelihoods. By inviting Ms. McCarthy, Ottawa Cancer is signaling that it either does not care about Ms. McCarthy’s anti-scientific views, or that it shares them.

One of the largest barriers cancer researchers face is the unjustified suspicion of not only cancer survivors but the general public in accepting the scientific facts about the disease. I am overjoyed that people are not simply adopting the asserted axioms of the scientific establishment without doing some research, but what Ms. McCarthy has been doing is something else entirely. She has, using her pulpit as a celebrity, been deliberately spreading misinformation to people who are vulnerable to the predations of opportunistic hucksters. Is it Ottawa Cancer’s position that this kind of fraud-by-proxy is acceptable simply because she has name recognition?

I strongly suggest you do not allow the reputation of Ottawa Cancer suffer as the result of what I can only assume to be poor staff work. Beyond the simple fact of public perception, you have a duty to ensure that patients are receiving a message that is grounded in evidence and best practices, not the pseudoscientific hunch-based beliefs of a woman who has been actively campaigning for years to undermine children’s public health programs. You should immediately announce that you have personally looked into Ms. McCarthy’s background and have made the executive decision not to associate the good name of Ottawa Cancer with her anti-science advocacy.

Do the thing that is not only right for your organization, but for the cancer survivors and families who rely on Ottawa Cancer for sound information and advice.

Skeptics across the country, buoyed by editorial pieces in MacLean’s and the Ottawa Citizen, lobbied Ottawa Cancer to drop Ms. McCarthy from the event (coining the hashtag #dropjenny).

And it worked: [Read more...]

What it means to be represented

Following up on our discussion this morning of the Canadian legal system and whether it has improved in its ability to represent the best interests of aboriginal people. I think that, considering where we have come from, the courts are doing a better job than they were. However, I have time and again railed against the false comfort of downward comparisons, and I do not wish to come across as trying to make the point that we have ‘fixed’ the problem. A multi-generational history of white supremacy doesn’t get canceled out by a few court cases washed down with the tears of angst-ridden liberal settlers.

The problem isn’t that judges were white supremacists, and now they’re not, so we can stop worrying. The issue undergirding all of these problems, be they about race or gender or culture or ethnicity, is one of representation. Any supremacist system is one in which a single group of people is empowered to make decisions that affect all other groups. In Re: Eskimos, we saw an overt ‘classical’ case of white supremacy, in which aboriginal people were not even notified let alone consulted before their ethnicity was made into law. In the cases this morning, it was still up to a white judicial system* to recognize the rights** of aboriginal peoples.

No, we can’t really call a system ‘fixed’ until the people who are subject to the machinations of power are able to fairly and proportionately participate in the exercise of power. And, as I mentioned this morning, we have some cause to think that may start happening: [Read more...]

Re: Aboriginal people in Canada and the courts

Jamie and I had, in the not-too-distant past, a disagreement over whether or not the Supreme Court of Canada (in its contemporary form) is an ally of justice when it comes to aboriginal people in Canada. Indeed, based on Monday’s post, it would be hard to make the case that Canada’s court systems are anything other than the most hypocritical arms of a white supremacist system, garbed as they are in the clothing (both figurative and literal) of justice. Any court that doesn’t recognize Canada’s current system of legislated inequality and discrimination when it comes to aboriginal sovereignty and the recognition of Treaty rights cannot really lay much claim to the title of ‘Supreme’.

That being said, I understand (perhaps better than Jamie, perhaps only differently from him) the Constitutional limitations of the court. It is the duty of Parliament, and not the courts, to create legislation, and most judges are quite loath to overturn the will of the elected government* unless there is an extremely compelling reason to do so – i.e., the law violates the Charter rights of Canadians. Judges are also bound to interpret the law according to the way it was interpreted by previous courts, making it a dispositionally conservative entity.

All that being said, as I pointed out before, the Court has made some recent decisions that I support. Decisions that I believe reflect a progressive sense of justice, and a decision-making process that prioritizes harm reduction over tradition, and attempts to balance maximum freedom with the greater good. Of course if I’m happy, that means that there are a lot of people on the political right who probably hate every single Justice, but that’s rather beside the point.

What was the point again? Oh right… Canada’s courts aren’t completely awful: [Read more...]