Segregation in 2013

I went to a high school with an incredibly diverse student body. While I didn’t really recognize it at the time, I was incredibly lucky: I was surrounded at all times by people from all over the world with a wide variety of experiences and beliefs. It didn’t “force me” to be tolerant or anything like that – like all things that happen during youth I just took it in stride. It wasn’t really until I got to the largely monochromatic environs of my undergraduate program* that I realized what it was like for major parts of the rest of the country – surrounded by people who look like you, and taking it in the same stride that I took my variety of classmate.

The idea that someone would want to segregate schools is, thus, very foreign to me. My education benefitted immensely from being cheek-by-jowl with people whose backgrounds were dissimilar to my own. It broadened my world view and allowed me to reflexively challenge a lot of racist and xenophobic assumptions about people who weren’t born in Canada in a way that the classes I took couldn’t hope to approach. The idea of someone choosing to rob someone of that kind of opportunity is baffling.

And yet, we find pretty much exactly that happening in Georgia: [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...]

Movie Friday: My right-wing conspiracy theory

I am not one easily given to conspiracy theories. I usually assume that any major injustice or monumental political shift is due to an accumulation of human stupidity, rather than the genius machinations of a secret cabal. After all, as Karl Rove has taught us, most of the people who are rumoured to be political ‘geniuses’ are usually just lucky and have good PR. It’s usually safer to assume that the snake has no head, given how spectacularly bad human beings are at keeping secrets.

I do make two pet exceptions though. The first is for H1N1, which I think was seen as an opportunity to test our public health readiness infrastructure. We knew pretty early on that the disease wasn’t particularly fatal, but it was a good chance for us to see what would happen when a serious flu (like H5N1, for example) breaks out, in a natural experiment. This isn’t a nefarious conspiracy – I don’t think government labs ‘cooked up’ a fake disease or any nonsense like that – but I think they held back on telling the public that there really wasn’t anything to worry about.

The second conspiracy theory that’s been cooking in the back of my mind is that conservatives are secretly brilliant. That they’ve been playing at being buffoons as part of a trans-generational practical joke on liberals, who are just too slow/outraged to get the joke. How else do you explain the fact that Michelle Bachmann is sitting on the House Intelligence Committee? That kind of irony doesn’t just happen by accident – that’s satire on a grand scale.

The problem is that liberals still haven’t clued in after all these years, and they’re having to get more and more obvious in the hopes that we will catch on. For a recent example, we can turn to (where else?) Fox ‘News’: [Read more...]

A textbook example of racial privilege

Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I am a big believer in the power of diversity. I’m not only referring to racial diversity, but I am of the belief that our racial identities inform our day-to-day experiences and the lens of how we see the world. A variety of experiences means a diversity of perspectives, which means in turn that any problem can be approached with a variety of solutions. It just makes sense – a group is smarter when it can rely on a variety of skills, even if the problem doesn’t have an explicitly racial component to it.

As a result, I am a supporter of affirmative action (AA) programs as a method of creating a more adaptable, agile, and smarter workforce. Whether that workforce is in academia or industry, we all benefit from being surrounded by people who are capable, but who also have life experience and perspectives that give us a better chance for a multi-faceted problem-solving approach. At the same time, I recognize (as do most supporters of AA programs) that it’s a non-perfect approach to the serious problem of racially supremacist systems. We have a history that has, at times explicitly, given the bulk of the benefit to some groups at the direct expense of another, resulting in a lopsided distribution of wealth, education, political power, and popular perception. There’s no way to re-balance the scales without someone feeling like they’ve had something taken from them.

Of course opponents of AA say that rebalancing the scales thusly is manifestly unfair. What we should do, they say, is just start treating everyone according to merit, thus ensuring that those who are “most qualified” will succeed. If we take race out of the equation entirely, we won’t be giving unfair advantages to one group, but nor will we be taking away opportunity from those who happen to be in a group that, once upon a time, had members that were wicked. By forcing race into the equation, affirmative action is being just as racist as those wicked ancestors were, just in the opposite direction!

Henry Yu explains the problem with that line of reasoning with a parable: [Read more...]

The Value of an Education

I began my university career a decade ago. I had grown tired of working for terrible wages in a hot and smelly kitchen, and I felt that the kind of challenge I was looking for in life would be found on some campus somewhere. Initially I had no idea what I wanted from a post-secondary education – I didn’t even know what sort of education I wanted. And so I drifted for the first two years between Biology, Astronomy, History, Literature, Philosophy, and Political Science. As it turned out, my fascination with biology was eclipsed by my passion for politics and philosophy, and I graduated with a degree in Political Science. I went on to do a year of undergraduate level sociology, where I discovered gender studies – and in particular the study of masculinities – and I finally went on to do a Master’s degree that allowed me to combine both political science and gender studies. By this time I had spent more time and money on education than I had ever thought possible – especially considering that the plan I had formulated during my last year of high-school would have seen me complete a two-year diploma in computer science. I was a youth of widely divergent interests.

I was also a conservative. I’m not talking about some high-minded, philosophical conservatism fuelled by an appreciation for tradition and a belief in prudent fiscal planning; I was a conservative of another sort. I believed poor people to be weak-willed failures deserving of their sad lots in life. I believed that expeditionary warfare ought to be pursued not only for the national interest, but because sometimes other nations simply deserved to be destroyed utterly – especially ones that I considered to be ‘barbaric’. I believed that women were inherently less intelligent than men, and that oftentimes they could not be trusted to make the ‘right’ decisions for themselves. I believed that because I had a black friend, I could never be racist. I distrusted and disliked ‘Indians’ and felt that the best thing we (as smart, advanced, white folk) could do for them would be to dismantle the reservation system and force them to assimilate into our obviously superior culture. Capitalism was good, Socialism was bad. Welfare was bad. Criminals should be put to death. I was the very model of a knee-jerk, authoritarian, proto-fascist conservative. I was so ridiculous in my outlook that I was approaching self-parody with a speed that bordered on the super-luminal. I knew that I was right.

By the time I had completed my undergraduate degree, I was a socialist. I had embraced many of the key tenets of feminism. I considered Foucault to be a sort of hero of mine – though I would later come to be critical of parts of his work. While I retained a respect for the purpose and history of the armed forces, I also recognized that they – like any weapon – should only be deployed in the direst of situations. I volunteered time with charities of many types, and I began to see the less fortunate members of our society as worthy of dignity, respect, and assistance. I had lost what vestiges of faith I had carried with me from my childhood, and I had embraced the analytical tools that my philosophical education had furnished me with. It wouldn’t be until I had almost completed my Master’s degree that I began to see myself as any sort of ally to social justice movements – in large part because I was still uncomfortable with the idea of standing out in a crowd. In a few rather short years, I had changed not only my political views, but my entire epistemology. I knew only that I knew very little.

A change, I think, for the better.

So what’s my point in all of this? It is only that education has value. My education in the arts and humanities changed the way I saw the world and interacted with it. It fundamentally deconstructed my old character and built in its place a person more able to empathize with – and more willing to assist – those members of my society who had been forgotten or discarded. My education stripped away uncountable layers of assumptions, false beliefs, and faulty heuristics that had coloured my perceptions of reality, and replaced them with a set of powerful tools that could be used to gain a far more accurate understanding of the world around me, and of the society I lived in.

Results may vary. Not everyone who pursues an education will end up a progressive or a leftist, and that’s not a bad thing at all. I’m not one of those people who argue that conservatism is evil or wrong, or that if we were all smart and rational and wise, we’d be progressives; a healthy society is one that that thrives on healthy debate between as many viewpoints as possible – at least in my view. I tend to think that conservatism is a necessary component of a healthy body politic; conservatives remind the rest of us that sometimes traditions are important, that prudence can often be a virtue, and that progress might sometimes benefit from a little bit of caution. These sorts of things are classical conservative values, and their importance doesn’t change, just because those who call themselves conservatives today are at best only casually familiar with the values of their ideological forebears. I think the contemporary conservative movement has strayed from its roots a fair bit – to the point where it might more accurately be called the ‘regressive movement’ or perhaps ‘the recidivist movement’. But I digress. Again.

Universities are not ‘indoctrination centres’ or ‘liberal brainwashing facilities’; they are crucibles that can, if we are willing to let them, burn away our preconceptions. Degrees in the arts and humanities are not wasted; they allow us to perceive the world in novel and challenging ways. Will my degree set me up with a career in the same way that an engineering degree can? Probably not, but that’s not why I spent all those years earning it. My education taught me how to think and how, I believe, to be a better person. That has value. That has worth.

You will be assimilated

One of the recurring memes that crop up in many discussions of ‘what is to be done’ with Canadian First Nations is the idea that multiculturalism in its current state is unsustainable, and assimilation is the only answer. My response to that is inevitably “you might be right. When do you plan to start assimilating?” You see, the argument is never that non-Aboriginal Canadians should begin to adopt the cultural, religious, and social traditions of Canada’s original people. The argument is always that those who have been colonized should, for their own good, simply acquiesce to the destruction of their way of life because, y’know… we’re bigger than them?

Of course I find this position both absurd and offensive. The problems we see endemic in many First Nations communities – lack of opportunity, abject poverty, substance abuse, take your pick – are not the result of a failed policy of multiculturalism. Nor is it the fault of those people who fail to adopt a “Western”* way of thinking and living. No, the reason we see these problems is because those people with power have failed, time after frustratingly-frequent time, to uphold their end of the bargain when it comes to providing adequate resources and support to these communities. When First Nations Canadians are perpetually considered the ‘other’, ignoring them and their needs become a matter of course.

Which is why I am particularly intrigued by this story: [Read more...]

Well THIS should be interesting

So yeah. Me = HUGE policy dork. I view public policy as an expression of democratic and social values, for good or for ill. The kinds of policy that a group enacts is, generally, reflective of their beliefs and their collective will to solve problems. Do they believe that problems resolve themselves, or do they need specific intervention? Do the needs of minority groups garner more interest than their numbers would suggest, or is it a ‘majority rules’ kind of deal? Do we empower individuals to find their own solutions, or do we envision government as a problem-solving apparatus? I find these questions fascinating.

Another part about public policy that I think is really important (but doesn’t get the level of attention I think it deserves) is this: does the policy work? It is all well and good to spend public funds or pass a law or build a program, but if you fail to measure whether or not you’re actually solving the problem you’ve set out to tackle, it quickly turns from government “expenditure” into government “waste”. It is partially (but primarily) for this reason that I went into the career path I’m in now.

With that in mind, I am really excited to see the outcome of this policy: [Read more...]

Lazy, spoiled, entitled whiners

I think if I was ever really hard up for cash, I could make a pretty decent living as a conservative columnist. It would actually be pretty easy – all I’d have to do is learn to stop thinking things through and rely on ‘common sense’ to justify all of my boneheaded, reductive, stereotypical leaps to whatever conclusion was sure to resonate with those who hadn’t bothered to learn anything about an issue. I could have made a killing opining on the Montreal protests – it was the first time most Canadians (myself included) were paying any attention to Quebec’s provincial political scene. All I’d have to do is denigrate this group or that group (maybe blame it on immigrants to boot), and collect my cheque.

Unfortunately, I am a liberal, and a skeptic liberal at that. I just don’t have it in me to pass off simplistic pseudo-explanations as statements of fact – not for money, anyway. Since announcing my intention to travel to Montreal (and a number of times since returning – and once while I was still there), I’ve had many conversations about the protests, and managed to get my counterpoints down to pretty concise talking points. [Read more...]

Une brique en plus sur le mur

I suppose it would be fair to criticize me as a radical. There is a scene in the movie Across The Universe where Evan Rachel Wood’s character is on the phone to her mother, who is concerned that her daughter has just become too radical in her political opinions. Wood’s character replies “you should be radical! We should all be radical!” The fact is that there are deep and fundamental problems with not just our political system, but the entire way in which our global society is structured. Nothing short of consistent, ceaseless, radical action will create the kinds of change we need to see if our world is going to improve meaningfully.

It is for this reason that I was so excited to travel to Montreal during the largest student protest movement in Canada’s recent history. This is a protest movement that has caught international attention – due in no small part I’m sure to the fact that it stands in sharp contrast to the stereotype of Canadians as meek, friendly and passive people. It also has the dubious ‘advantage’ of being a story that conservatives can sink their fangs into with gusto: a bunch of rich pampered kids who would rather whine for handouts than work a shovel.

For me, this story is about a central question of how power is exercised in our society, and it is perhaps the most important question we are in the process of deciding the answer to: do political leaders derive their power from the consent of the governed? Are politicians truly beholden to the articulated best interest of their constituents, or is voting merely a cosmetic exercise in choosing which individual goes on to pass the same kinds of laws? Do we have the ability to enforce rules and constraint on the powers that be, or has our democratic system merely become a showy diversion to obscure the influence of those who hold true power? [Read more...]

In loco parentis

One of the things that I have found in my relatively few years involved in scientific research is that there are parts that are much more difficult than others. From conception to execution to communication, there are a number of repeatable discrete steps in the research pipeline, and while it varies somewhat, there is definitely a pattern. I know that lab work is tricky, and nobody likes grant writing, but the hardest part for me is coming up with a research question. The way in which you ask the question dictates, to a certain extent, how you approach answering it. Some questions, like “why is math hard” are far too broad and poorly-defined to be operationalized. Others, like “does fire ruin my new phone” are too trivial and mundane to be worthwhile.

A properly-created research question is money in the bank. So, as an act of magnanimity, I am offering up this fruitful research question for free, to be researched by anyone who wants to tackle it. “What is it about having kids that turns people into stupid assholes?“: [Read more...]