31 July 2006

The Tension of Middle East Polarities

I have, for the most part, refrained from publicly blogging or commenting on the war raging between Israel and Lebanon, and on the media coverage thereof. I will admit that I am terribly torn over the horror that is unfolding, and therefore, I find it exceptionally difficult to be anything close to rationally analytic, or even keenly perceptive, of the dynamics of the situation. I curse the evil intent of the Hezbollah, and despair over the tragic loss of life among hundreds of innocents (and orders of magnitude greater numbers of injured, and those that have lost livelihoods and lifetimes).

Broad, carefully constructed, and well-considered perspectives are impossible to find among the massmedia - and much of the North American reportage that I have seen (and I am not at all glued to the coverage) smells of larger political agendas at best, and demonstrates an uncomfortable, self-important, fatuousness at worst.

After hearing her on a CBC interview, I've begun reading Lisa Goldman's blog, On the Face. Lisa is a Canadian-Israeli reporter in Tel Aviv who gets to the humanity behind the sensational stories, such as this one about children "signing" tank missles. Today, she has a post about two editors of Beirut and Tel Aviv localized editions of what appears to be a global entertainment magazine, Time Out. Amir Ben-David, the Israeli editor, writing about his friend, the Beirut editor:
Ramsay Short, the editor of Time Out Beirut – the first edition was published just a few days before the conference – proved to be relaxed, friendly, and easygoing. The guy who wrote, The Hedonist’s Guide to Beirut, and enjoys being a DJ of electro music in bars during his spare time would have fit easily into Tel Aviv.

Now he is hiding in his house near the Beirut port, terrified of the Israeli bombs. You will be able to read about his depressing experiences and his even more depressing conclusions in this article. His words are full of rage, unfiltered and uncensored. It is not easy for an Israeli to read them. Even someone who supports “Israel’s strong response” to Hizbollah’s provocation should ask himself if hurting hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens and pursuers of peace like Ramsay Short and making them into sworn haters of Israel is the right thing to do under these circumstances.
Lisa continues with comments drawn from a conversation she had with Ben-David:
Amir stresses that he believes an Israeli military response to the Hezbollah attack was justified. "I am not a pacifist or naïve," he said. "I know what neighbourhood we live in. But still, it is possible to question the way we have reacted, and what we have done to the Lebanese people."


The response of Barak and those who supported the withdrawal [from southern Lebanon in 2000] was to promise that if Hezbollah did attack, Israel would respond with full military force.

That is why there is a wide Israeli consensus in support of the current IDF operations in Lebanon, even amongst most of the prominent supporters of the centre-left position - despite their great discomfort with the reports of the civilian deaths and destruction of infrastructure. There is a sense that Israel simply had no choice. Amir wonders if we are failing to ask the right questions, and I think that is fair enough. Israelis are proud of their strong democracy and of their ability to engage in self-examination; I don't see any contradiction between loving and supporting one's country and maintaining one's ability to ask difficult questions even during a time of crisis. Quite the contrary, in fact. Especially after what happened yesterday in Qana.
The world's seeming swiftness and vociferousness to condemn Israel as the primary aggressor ignores - indeed, precludes - our collective ability to ask the requisite difficult questions of all parties. Political rhetoric that obfuscates fundamentalist agendas from all sides prevents finding a solution that will enable the most fundamental human right of all: the right to live for Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghanis, and the thousands of Western soldiers who are being sent to risk their lives throughout the greater region.

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27 July 2006

Will the Real David Weinberger Please Stand Up?

David raises an interesting question about identity over at Joho the Blog:
Identity isn't a continuum with anonymity at one end and documented, certified, authenticated ID on the other. It probably never was and it certainly isn't online. There's a third vertex: Pseudonymity. Pseudonyms online are not midway between anonymity and ID. They're different in kind, but enough on the same plane that any discussion of anonymity and ID that does not include pseudonyms is likely to go wrong.

It's hard to find an exact analog to this in the real world.
[How about costume parties? MF] Social roles aren't really the same as pseudonyms. But that means that we have to be extra special careful to include pseudonyms in our thinking so we don't port inappropriate real world schema into the new virtual world, especially since the porting is being done top down by the traditional fear-based organizations (big corps and governments).
Here's my response:

What David is really asking about (or rather, what I hear him asking about) is the construction of identity. I think that we as a society have become so dependent on the visual and tangible that we mistake construction of identity with visual familiarity. The visual aspect is manifest in everything from the North American/European obsession with body image to the parental fear over our young children trusting familiar strangers in parks. The tangible aspect is revealed in the choice of language - "virtual" used in reference to that which exists in cyberspace, in dichotomous opposition to "real," referring to that which exists in physical space.

David's strawman identity continuum reflects this erroneous dichotomy (i.e., virtual::real mapped onto anonymous::certified-grade-a) which is, I think, an artefact of the former dominance of the visual in modern society. In the UCaPP environment of our contemporary world, the dominant sensation is tactile, not visual (tactile as distinct from tangible); complex networks of relationships are key to the construction of identity.

The problem with social roles (in traditional role theory) is that they tend to be defined as discrete, fragmentary and contingent. Not so when they are considered as complex patterns of effects in relationships (this was the underlying premise of my master's thesis on Role*). In this context, I would understand each instance of pseudonymity as one (among many) emergent identities in the context of a complex environment of relationships, that does not correspond with either a visual, or a nominative (and possibly others already defined by regulatory or legislative agencies, for instance) identity.

I agree wholeheartedly that identity schema porting done by fear-based organizations is problematic in the extreme. The type of derivative identity construction from a set of digiSelves haphazardly gathered against a ground of paranoia and fear gives us the error-filled TSA watchlists, and cases of immoral and illegal detentions and renditions. Sadly, the type of complexity thinking required to solve this conundrum seems to be mutually exclusive with BAH (bureaucratic, administrative, hierarchical) organizations in general, and authoritarian organizations in particular.

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22 July 2006

John Hodgman Explains Net Neutrality

The Daily Show's John "I'm a PC" Hodgman explains the issue of net neutrality. And you know, the Internet might well become a series of tubes.

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17 July 2006

The Madness of King George

Republic: noun.
  1. A political order whose head of state is not a monarch.
  2. A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens.
  3. A political descriptor that once could be applied to the United States of America, but effectively, no longer.
At least not according to an op-ed piece from the New York Times, that was re-published by the International Herald Tribune.
Over and over again, the same pattern emerges: Given a choice between following the rules or carving out some unprecedented executive power, the White House always shrugged off the legal constraints. Even when the only challenge was to get required approval from an ever- cooperative Congress, the president and his staff preferred to go it alone. While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism, the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another, perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight against any constraint on the executive branch.
The article makes it clear that the so-called war on terror is a nominal justification to right what some in power consider as the wrongs learned from Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. The problems in those situations, according to the secular monarchists in the U.S. administration, were not due to over-reaching presidential power, but to the opposite: insufficient presidential power that would have made such illegal and immoral actions within the realm of presidential prerogative.
Jane Mayer provided a close look at this effort to undermine the constitutional separation of powers in a chilling article in the July 3 issue of The New Yorker. She showed how it grew out of Vice President Dick Cheney's long and deeply held conviction that the real lesson of Watergate and the later Iran-Contra debacle was that the president needed more power.

To a disturbing degree, the horror of Sept. 11 became an excuse to take up this cause behind the shield of Americans' deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Civil liberties have been trampled. The nation's image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about. American agents "disappear" people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo without charges or rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.
The depictions in the latter paragraph are all too familiar in the contemporary world. They are usually applied (at least in the Western massmedia) to petty dictators, leaders of so-called banana republics, mass murderers residing in imperial palaces, and many of those accused by the U.S. of harbouring, funding, or otherwise supporting terrorists. That the U.S. has lost the respect (not to mention sympathy) of most of the rest of the world is unfortunate. That it has lost the ability to claim the moral high ground, and serve as an exemplar of liberty, justice and democracy is a travesty and a tragic loss for the world.

The question is not specifically whether what the President is doing is technically legal (even though it is not, according to the U.S. Supreme Court), nor whether his actions can be made technically legal by a Congress blinded by partisan considerations. The question for me is the same as always: are the resulting effects those that the American people want to create? Abrogating the rule of law. Participating in activities that could easily be classified as war crimes that, in turn, are used against captured American soldiers, journalists and others. Creating massive disruption in the lives and livelihoods of thousands of innocent people. Creating incentives and justifications that have aided the recruitment of hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women bent on carrying out fanatical, terrorist activities. Trampling the Bill of Rights and effectively eliminating the fundamental freedoms that underpin democracy. Are these resulting effects those that the American people want to create?

It's a simple question.

To begin to do something about it, how about supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation's bid to have both sides of some of this madness heard in a court of law. Right now, there is a bill speeding through Congress that would have supposed judicial oversight of many executive illegalities heard only in secret, with arguments presented only by the government. If you are an American, write to your Congressperson today!

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15 July 2006

Middle East Burning

First, this excerpt from Baghdad Burning, that left me numb:
Rape. The latest of American atrocities. Though it's not really the latest- it's just the one that's being publicized the most. The poor girl Abeer was neither the first to be raped by American troops, nor will she be the last. The only reason this rape was brought to light and publicized is that her whole immediate family were killed along with her. Rape is a taboo subject in Iraq. Families don't report rapes here, they avenge them. We've been hearing whisperings about rapes in American-controlled prisons and during sieges of towns like Haditha and Samarra for the last three years. The naiveté of Americans who can't believe their 'heroes' are committing such atrocities is ridiculous. Who ever heard of an occupying army committing rape??? You raped the country, why not the people?

In the news they're estimating her age to be around 24, but Iraqis from the area say she was only 14. Fourteen. Imagine your 14-year-old sister or your 14-year-old daughter. Imagine her being gang-raped by a group of psychopaths and then the girl was killed and her body burned to cover up the rape. Finally, her parents and her five-year-old sister were also killed. Hail the American heroes... Raise your heads high supporters of the 'liberation' - your troops have made you proud today. I don't believe the troops should be tried in American courts. I believe they should be handed over to the people in the area and only then will justice be properly served. And our ass of a PM, Nouri Al-Maliki, is requesting an 'independent investigation', ensconced safely in his American guarded compound because it wasn't his daughter or sister who was raped, probably tortured and killed. His family is abroad safe from the hands of furious Iraqis and psychotic American troops.

It fills me with rage to hear about it and read about it. The pity I once had for foreign troops in Iraq is gone. It's been eradicated by the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, the deaths in Haditha and the latest news of rapes and killings. I look at them in their armored vehicles and to be honest- I can't bring myself to care whether they are 19 or 39. I can't bring myself to care if they make it back home alive. I can't bring myself to care anymore about the wife or parents or children they left behind. I can't bring myself to care because it's difficult to see beyond the horrors. I look at them and wonder just how many innocents they killed and how many more they'll kill before they go home. How many more young Iraqi girls will they rape?

Why don't the Americans just go home? They've done enough damage and we hear talk of how things will fall apart in Iraq if they 'cut and run', but the fact is that they aren't doing anything right now. How much worse can it get? People are being killed in the streets and in their own homes- what's being done about it? Nothing. It's convenient for them- Iraqis can kill each other and they can sit by and watch the bloodshed- unless they want to join in with murder and rape.
Such brutality and inhuman monstrosity that seems to be a too-common occurrence among American soldiers - is it born of frustration? Anger? Futility? Hopelessness? Helplessness? Is the continual frustration of America's nominal objectives for a well-running, functional democracy in Iraq legible to other factions in the region that might want to, say, take advantage of the overwhelming distraction, not to mention complete incompetence of the leadership, that the debacle in Iraq represents?

It is not beyond the realm of comprehension to read the recent aggressions that have emerged almost simultaneously from Pyongyang, Beirut, and Gaza City (and I would include Damascus and Tehran as well), as the actions of those who have little to lose and much to gain, taking advantage of the "world's policeman" being otherwise occupied (a deliberate choice of wording, by the way, in which the principle of reversal kicks in - the occupier becomes the occupied). Given that the bright lights in the White House tragically underestimated the effects and consequences of their Iraq (mis)adventure, they would not possibly have anticipated the degree to which they have jeopardized millions throughout the entire Middle East, not to mention the stability of the global economy. Would Hamas and Hezbollah have been equally bold if the Americans were at the top of their military game? Theodore Roosevelt had it right.

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14 July 2006

Net Neutrality: It's the Tubes, Stupid

Much has been made about U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska's salient observation that the Internet - or at least his personal internet - isn't a truck, it's tubes. Jon Stewart's Daily Show take on Steven's Truck-Tube dichotomy is hilarious, especially since it brings in the House of Representatives hullabaloo over Internet gambling, demonstrating why online gambling on horseracing is compatible with Ted Steven's clogged tubes. (By the way, here's why the infamous "internet" sent to Stevens took five days.)

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12 July 2006

Film at 11

This just in. Breaking News. And other media clichés!

Bell Globemedia, the owner of, among other things, the Globe and Mail, the CTV television network, and a gaggle of specialty channels like the Comedy Network, TSN, Discovery Channel, and MTV Canada, has just announced that it is planning to acquire the CHUM Inc. for $1.7 billion. CHUM owns 33 radio stations and 12 television stations, including the popular and pioneering CityTV stations across Canada.

I was alerted to this news a couple of hours ago when a reporter from CityTV called me to do an on-camera interview about the ramifications of this acquisition (film at 6, actually). My concern - shared with many others around the media world and the blogosphere - is that of concentration of massmedia ownership. It is the editors and producers who direct the pointing of cameras and microphones that tell us what to pay attention to, in other words, what we should consider as important in our world. Marshall McLuhan used to say that there could only be one active war in the world at a time, since the television cameras could only point in one direction at a time. Although both the media and the world have changed considerably since McLuhan's time, it is true that for "hard news" reportage, the world relies on on-the-scene journalists to source materials. It is also true that the vast majority of Canadians rely on the conventional newsmedia for information. The fewer media owners, the fewer diverse voices are loudly heard. The fewer voices, the less vigorous is the public discourse, and that is detrimental to democratic process and participation. What's more, fewer owners means that greater influence can be exerted by politicians and policy makers.

My guess is that the CRTC would not approve the acquisition without requiring divestiture of some television stations, especially where there is overlap. The business strategy may well be for Bell Globemedia to acquire the radio properties, plus the CHUMCity's specialty channels, such as FashionTV, Bravo, Star!, SexTV, and MuchMusic, all of which have extensive content licensing revenues. They will likely kick the CityTV A-channel stations overboard, rather than sacrifice the local CTV affiliates. The question is, who might be the likely buyer? TorStar Group is awaiting approval of an investment in BGM, so they might not be a likely (read: approvable) suitor. Craig and Quebecor have just divested themselves of television holdings, as did Shaw a few years back. CanwestGobal has the same overlap problem as does BGM, with much less cash (and cash flow) to play with. CBC... well, enough said...

For a wild and crazy idea, perhaps we'll see an American company enter the Canadian market, perhaps fronted by some Canadian partners. We've seen it happen in the satellite radio business, and before that, in the mega-bookstore business some years back. Even wilder and crazier might be an Internet company seeking to build some content production expertise and capability. YahooCanadaTV or GoogleCanadaTV? The Canadian market would be a perfect one in which to launch an interesting experiment, not in convergence, but in pervasive proximity production. After all, the slogan of the news desk is "CityTV. Everywhere!"

Update (13 July 2006): Speaking of being kicked overboard, 281 CityTV operations and news staff from every location except Toronto lost their jobs within hours of the major announcement. Seems that the branch CityTV locations will become not much more than fancy community access channels: "Citytv stations in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg will move from traditional one-hour evening newscasts to a new daily half-hour local news magazine show "In Your City", with in-depth coverage of community stories coupled with a new daily half-hour national and international news package currently being planned."

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Post-Modern States

Regular readers will know that I tend to rail on about the "reversal of america," and the correspondences between America under Bush-the-Younger, and Russia under Stalin. I have even pointed to the rise of fascism in the country that has heretofore been hailed as an exemplar of democracy. But today, I came across an interesting article by George Schöpflin posted at openDemocracy concerning Russia framed as a post-modern state in a battle against globalization. I was struck (again) by the correspondences between Putin's Russia and Bush Jr.'s America - not in the specifics, since both countries are coming from very different grounds, but in the intended effects.

Schöpflin describes how globalization brings about three principle effects that serve to undermine authoritarian control, reducing the ability of the state to control both its population, and the flow of information, and to introduce a continual process of change through enabling technologies whose complexity of consequences are more or less unpredictable by command-and-control oriented authorities. Putin's problem with respect to globalization is an interesting one. He had to re-establish some degree of stability in the chaotic aftermath of Boris Yeltsin's introduction of pseudo-democratic politics, and a quasi-open market economy, without reverting to the former iron-fisted Soviet-style central planning and control.
Globalisation has strengthened individual empowerment. This can be seen in the demands that the collective will of the majority and state power should give way to individual preference. Simultaneously the state is made more porous through the impact of new technology, information and immigration, to name but three. Putin's Russia is determined to resist this weakening of the state. Its understanding of the relationship between state power and the individual is one of dependency, not reciprocity.
Schöpflin describes the ideological threat of Isalm, which nonetheless "does not prevent ad hoc deals with Islamic states" as a matter of "pragmatism." He describes the return of "xenophobic rhetoric and a recovery of influence and voice by Orthodox Christianity. The old idea of sobornost (the community of the faithful) has acquired new life and necessarily excludes non-Russians." He also notes the "mounting hostility towards Europe" and points out Russia's reinforcment of its control over economic resources. Finally, Schöpflin observes how "the elite ... live in a semi-detached way from the people, and concentrate hegemonic power in its hands... [while] giv[ing] the people enough to pre-empt serious discontent, but not enough to create the preconditions for an upheaval." These goals are accomplished by reducing government services, clamping down on serious dissent while tolerating limited, marginal, and obscure protests, tightly controlling the politically-oriented mass media while enabling populist television programming, and creating systemic impediments to the formation of strong civil society institutions and organizations.

As I read this description of Putin's handiwork, I cannot help but hear echoes of analogous social constructs and constrictions that are occurring throughout America. Cloaked in technological debates about intellectual property rights and net neutrality, the underpinnings of civil society's ability to organize and disseminate information are swiftly being eroded. Politically explosive reportage by mass media outlets result in calls for jail or worse by key government players. The sharp increase in "xenophobic rhetoric," the influential rise in orthodox (read: fundamentalist) Christianity, and the exclusion of non-Americans may be different in figure from those issues in Russia, but the intended ground effects seem to be identical. However, coming from a historical ground of individual liberty and openness, Bush's America is experiencing a more troublesome transition to rather hidden central control than Putin's Russia:
There is little sign that Russia's new form of state is facing any kind of crisis; far from it. ...it seems to have found an equilibrium, at any rate for the foreseeable future. Whether the Putin system can weather future shocks is another question, but for the time being it looks well established and has no incentive to change. It's a system that is going with, not against, the grain of Russia's culture.

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09 July 2006

Mission Statement

I’ve been doing some further reading into complexity thinking as applied to organization environments, as my Valence Theory is founded on a multiplicity of interconnected relationship networks, from which complexity arises. I came across this summary of a typical conception of organization, and what occurs therein, in an interesting paper by Ronald Murray:
An organization as a social entity is described by its mission, processes, structure and culture. Its mission defines its reason for existence in terms of the difference it makes in the lives of consumers of its products and services – its added-value to them. The mission may serve others in the organization, external organizations or individual consumers. It may be very clear and consistent, or may become vague and inconsistent indicating a loss of commonality in the consciousness and realities of the organization’s members.

The organizational capacity to achieve the mission is provided by the other elements of the socio-technical infrastructure. Processes provide a dynamic perspective no members working together using standardized procedures to create and deliver products and services for customers and to manage the organization. … An organization’s processes and structure are based on the shared attitudes, values and perceptions that constitute its culture.

From the perspective of its members’ interactions, an organization is described in terms of their roles, responsibilities, relationships and resource management practices. … Such roles and responsibilities are interdependent with the organization’s processes, structure and culture. If defined entirely within the context of an organization’s units they are consistent with fragmented processes, thick boundaries, and a possessive culture, but these elements will be very different if roles and responsibilities are defined in relation to the organization as a whole. Similarly, members’ working and reporting relationships… the same is true of resource management practices. … When organizations are perceived as patterned human behaviors underlying their elements as social entities and as members’ interactions, they can be described in terms of their internal and external information flow and the mental model that allow members to acquire a common reality
(p. 221-222).
I can map Murray’s description to Aristotle’s four causes, namely, formal (the “essence” or nature of the thing), material (its substance), efficient (relating to what brings it into being, closest to the conventional, if misguided, notion of cause-and-effect) and final (its ultimate reason for being).

I make the following correspondences in the traditional view:
MissionRaison d’être, purpose, endFinal causeBased on perceived (and often conceived) need
Socio-technical environmentProcessMeansEfficient causeBased on shared attitudes, values, perceptions
StructureMeans(Arguably) Material cause
CultureEndFinal causeShapes and influences shared attitudes, values, perceptions

Adherence to the priority of an organization’s “mission,” considered to be its purpose or “raison d’être,” is often used to justify certain behaviours, and pre-empt considerations of wider effect. It is many of these rationalized behaviours that have been indicted as characteristic ills of modern corporations, and sometimes result in an over-enthusiastic (to put it mildly) response to some of these ills. Even the simplistic notion, espoused by the likes of economist Milton Friedman, that an organization’s “social responsibility is to increase its profits,” places the “divine right of capital” (as it is characterized by author Marjoree Kelly) as the ultimate mission of any commercial organization.

With Valence Theory, the “mission” can be considered as something other than the final cause, the purpose or the end. Rather, the mission can be considered a means towards an end that is defined according to Effect-ive Theory. In this characterization, the mission defines the form of the endeavour, corresponding more to an aspect of formal cause of the enterprise organization, rather than its final cause. Specifically, it is a means to enable the organization’s formal cause or effect, within the context of its environment.

Culture, defined in terms of Effect-ive Theory, reflects the measure of effects, especially reflexive effects (that is, the effects of organizational interactions fed back and affecting the component actants within the larger organizational collective (à la Latour). This is the essence of my culture/effect-ive theory argument. As well, organizational culture, as a final cause, is a non-deterministic, emergent effect of the network of valences among a given organization, its component members, and the other organizations with which it shares valences.

Why, then, should an organization’s mission necessarily be considered as its immutable, guiding light? Over time, mission, too, becomes an emergent property of the greater organizational system of valences, non-deterministically and intimately tied to the emergent culture. Whereas conventionally, mission was considered as the predominant expression of an organization’s instrumentality – what does the organization want to do? – under Valence and Effect-ive Theories, the notion of mission changes slightly, but significantly, to ask what are the nature of the changes among its valences that this organization will effect? A organization's management and members are only effect-ive if they can anticipate and bring about the intended effects.

  • Kelly, M. (2001). The divine right of capital. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
  • Murray, R. (2005). Theory of integral complex organization. In Richardson, K.A. (Ed.), Managing organizational complexity: Philosophy, theory and application (pp. 217-35). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
  • Friedman, M. (1970, September 13 1970). The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine, 32 ff.

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Tunnel Vision

The news this week, that alleged terrorists - none of whom were in the U.S. - were arrested for conspiring to blow up New York's Holland Tunnel and flood lower Manhattan (despite the fact that lower Manhattan is above the river level, so no New Orlean-style flooding here, folks), gives me pause. It's not that would-be terrorists exist - the policies of the current Bush administration are the fuel for a veritable terrorist manufacturing engine. It's not that plots worthy of a Hollywood disaster flick dance before the eyes of newly fledged jihadists like so many sugar plums... wait... bad metaphor mixing... like so many virgins in paradise.

What gives me pause are two things: first, the "pre-crime" aspect of this event, as well as that of the earlier Miami arrests, is beginning to emerge as a disturbing pattern. I have no doubt that international law enforcement agencies could, at any arbitrary time, swoop in on various and sundry cells that they are monitoring via infiltrators, received tips (perhaps from rival factions), and intercepted Internet traffic. That the timing can be deliberately chosen turns these events, by definition, from law enforcement and crime prevention activities into political theatre and spectacle. Such spectacle, of course, is what is deliberately used to frighten the public into passivity, and acceptance of whatever government authorities choose to do, be it illegal, immoral, anti-democratic, or combinations thereof.

Second, as a political act, such arrests - and the media circus that surrounds them - tends to polarize policy debates along partisan lines, rather than encouraging a critical examination of the ground issues. Historically (for those who, unlike the current U.S. President, have actually read history), it is the lack of ground perception - perceiving the true, indirect effects of policies and actions that most people ignore - that enables countries to slip into dangerous, totalitarian territory.

Here is what is particularly telling about the political nature of this most recent event: the "Canadian connection." Apparently, one of the arrested suspects took some business courses at Montreal's Concordia University ten years ago. Long after this trivial detail is forgotten, the impression of a memory of a Canadian connection to an alleged terrorist plot in the U.S. will fuel calls for a tightening of our own domestic, anti-terrorist surveillance activities. And one more thing: the arrests made the news on the anniversary of the bombings in London perpetrated by "home-grown" terrorists. Coincidenza?

And speaking of home-grown terrorists, did you hear that military enlistment in the U.S. is up, at least among a certain demographic? "The reasons are obvious: soldiers are trained to be proficient with weapons, combat tactics, and explosives, to train others in their use, and to operate in a highly disciplined culture that is focused on the organized violence of war."

Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am becoming afraid of "home-grown" terrorists, especially those that are grown using good ol' U.S. of A. know-how, equipment and provisions, regardless of colour of their skin, or how (and to whom) they pray.

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01 July 2006

The House on Lippincott

Since beginning my graduate work, I have put aside any hope of reading fiction until I'm done. There is simply so much heavy reading to do in the course of doctoral degree - not to mention ancillary reading and research for lectures and talks - that fiction would seem like the proverbial busman's holiday. I did, however, make one exception.

Bonnie Burstow is one of my professors - one of my exceptional professors - and has become a friend during my time at OISE. She is also the author of a most remarkable book, The House on Lippincott, published this spring by Inanna Press.
Embedded in Canadian and world history, and set in downtown Toronto between 1947 and the turn of the century, The House on Lippincott is a Jewish family saga which weaves together family caring, Holocaust trauma, abuse, aging, betrayal, anti-Semitism, resistance, and celebration, while introducing vital new characters to the Canadian landscape. There is brilliant feminist scholar and thinker, Miriam Himmelfarb, from whose perspective the story unfolds, her parents--Rachael and Daniel--both Holocaust survivors and activists, mysterious Uncle Yacov, and sisters Sondra and Esther. As children of survivors, early on, Miriam and her sisters make a decision which is to haunt them. A woman with heart, the aging Rachael presents her family with yet another harrowing choice. Compelling, passionate, touching. Long buried secrets come to light. Throughout, this novel is engrossing, passionate, captivating. Grounded in the language and conundrums of a Jewish immigrant family, it has the appeal of any novel embedded in a specific culture. At the same time, it extends beyond that culture, and indeed, beyond the Holocaust, bringing us face-to-face with the human condition: our ability to create joy and meaning even under dire circumstances, human suffering, growing up, responsibility, love, betrayal, family ties, the realities of growing old, death and the vulnerability of the human soul.
The book is at once profoundly moving and intellectually challenging as it recounts the life and times of the Himmelfarb family, perceived through the eyes and heart of Miriam, the second eldest daughter, in the role narrator. I love this book for a variety of reasons:

First, I know these characters. Not only do they represent people who have passed through my life at one time or another, Bonnie has created characters with such nuanced depth of personality that they are, indeed, real. Even the minor characters correspond faithfully to my experience and memories of those who have been on the periphery of my life.

Second, in the three daughters, Sondra, Miriam and Esther, Bonnie has explored three very distinct responses to the family life of Holocaust-survivor parents. None is a caricature, yet each in her own way, captures the unique mentality of a child - and later adult - attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible as it infiltrates her own life.

Third, without revealing the end of the story, the final scenes represent the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over the evil that was perpetrated during the Holocaust, even in the final decline of that spirit. The resolution of the story, facilitated by Eema (mother) in her final days, stands in stark contrast to the ultimate defeat of her husband by the ghosts of the Nazis that tormented him throughout his life, and through him, I would say, tormented his daughters.

Fourth, there is an important process of witnessing that occurs throughout this story that I have not encountered elsewhere. In particular, the gendered experience of the Holocaust represents a set of experiences that have not been widely publicized, that are important to chronicle. The tragic experience of evil and depravity has always been, and continues to be, a gendered phenomenon. It is only relatively recently that the awareness of this divide has reached the mass media and popular consciousness. In my own reading about the Holocaust over the years, and through the representations and narratives contained among Holocaust memorials and museums that I have visited, I had only heard very few of the experiences in the camps that were uniquely experienced by women and girls.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, this book is the story of the particular heritage of the Canadian Jewish community. While it starkly confronts the reader with images from Auschwitz, it equally confronts the reader with images from countless homes across Toronto and, I would expect, Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and the various smaller centres that were the final destinations of thousands of post-war, Jewish refugees. Albeit a fictional account in which the characters are all amalgams of life stories drawn from both research and Bonnie's clinical practice as a trauma therapist, these stories are important for Canadian Jews to know. Irrespective of whether readers share their generation with Miriam, Sondra and Esther, or whether they are the children of that generation, the book is one of the ways to understand our own psyche.

The book is, unfortunately, in very limited distribution. In Toronto, it is available at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, at some Book City outlets, at Israel's, and some other independent sellers. It is also available directly from Inanna. It has just become available in Vancouver and a couple of other cities as well. However you manage to obtain a copy, read this book.

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