An Open Letter to Stephen Harper re: Chief Theresa Spence

Dear Mr. Harper:

Where are you, man? It seems like it’s been forever since you’ve been around. You’re aware, I hope, that one of our friends, and one of your fellow citizens, Chief Theresa Spence, is literally dying to see you. She hasn’t eaten since December 12, you see. She’s waiting for you to come down and meet her. She doesn’t want anything from you right now- just your attention. Now I can understand of course that you’re a busy guy- you’ve got executives to shmooze with, a caucus to manage, and I’m sure your hockey book is probably taking up some time as well. I even hear that you have a family. So I can understand that you wouldn’t have be able to see Chief Spence immediately, even though I’m certain that you would love to.

But Mr. Harper, it’s been weeks. Three weeks. Twenty-one days. Our friend, and your fellow citizen Chief Spence has not eaten in that time. I’m sure that you, Mr. Harper, have enjoyed some tasty meals since then, surrounded by your friends and loved ones. I’m sure that you can understand the tremendous force it must take her to maintain her strike, and the serious danger she is placing herself in as the holidays fade into winter. You, Mr. Harper, and you alone, have the power to save her. I know that you know this, because you’ve sent faxes, e-mails, and phone calls to her office- I also know that you know, like the rest of the world, that Chief Spence is not there, that she is in a tent on an island in the Ottawa River, spitting distance from your office.

It’s been three weeks, Mr. Harper, and the only logical conclusion I can draw is that you are choosing to ignore her. Presumably, you are motivated by two things. The first is the desire to prove that hunger strikes won’t work, and that you are prepared to see our friend and fellow citizen into the grave rather than imply that others, too, could meet you if they showed a similar fortitude. The other thing, I assume, is the same thing that motivated Jean Charest this spring, when hundreds of thousands of young people flooded the streets of Montréal and other cities in Quebec- that you think this strike is meaningless, that your mind is made up, and that you will execute your planned agenda regardless of dissent.

Let me take the second point first. Last spring, the student strike was called meaningless by all sorts of commentators. “Who cares if the students don’t go to class, they’re only hurting themselves!” “Tuition fees are going up, there’s nothing they can do about it!” “If we ignore them, they’ll go away!” However, the one thing that is very clear, almost a year after the strike, is that ignoring the protestors was the absolute worst thing Charest could have done. It strengthened their resolve. It made them louder, it made them work harder. I was there, after all, and I can’t say it more succinctly than this: “Cri haut, plus fort, pour que personne ne nous ignore!” Shout! Louder! So no one can ignore us!

And six months after the fact, Charest lost his job, and the fee increases were cancelled. The protestors understood something fundamental about a democracy that Charest, seemingly, did not: here, policy comes from the street and it’s up to the politicians to implement what the people want. We do not elect someone for him or her to impose their plans- we elect them to implement ours. Charest was charged in his position with implementing policy developed collaboratively and which reflected Quebec values. Universal access to education, free assembly, and free speech are Quebec values: endebting those who simply wish to learn for learning’s sake is not.

Nobody voted for you for dictator, Mr. Harper- you are a public servant. Canadians voted for your party because they trusted you to be a sound manager whose agenda would reflect the values of the country. Conservatism- the idea that we should move carefully, cautiously, do our research, listen moderately to dissenting views, and build a nest egg sustainably- this is a Canadian value. Limitless, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources for private profit on the backs of our First Nations brothers and sisters is not.

Mr. Harper, you might think that Chief Spence’s hunger strike is meaningless. You might think she’s only hurting herself, you might think these resources are going to be developed anyway, so who cares if she wants to starve herself to death? You might think that if you ignore her, and her allies, that we will go away. But thinking this way will lead you nowhere productive. If you don’t meet her, Chief Spence will die. You don’t need me to explain what type of social movement that will set off- you will be faced with hate, vitriol, and the fury of those whose loved one you could have saved, but chose to ignore.

But you have a second option. Though you want to prove hunger strikes don’t work, that Chief Spence should follow the proper channels (the same ‘proper channels’ responsible for residential schools, land theft, and thousands of other injustices, might I remind you), you could do something different. You could leave your Mountie buddies on the shore, humbly step into a canoe, and paddle yourself out there. Have a cup of tea with our friend and your fellow citizen, and truly hear her concerns. Hear where she is coming from. If you are lucky, maybe you too will hear the rhythm of the living earth with which we have been blessed through drum circles and round dances.

Because I agree, Mr. Harper, than Canada is a blessed country, and that this can be Canada’s century. All the ingredients are here. But your neo-liberal, slash and burn, for-profit mentality will not get us there, and is indeed a dogma responsible for many of the gravest injustices of the 20th century. Like the carrés rouges in the spring, like IdleNoMore now, and like the waves of protest movements to come, we are millions of Canadians demanding social and environmental justice today. You, Mr. Harper, can either join us, and help us save our shared natural environment and restore our First Nations allies to their rightful place as the senior partner of Confederation, or you can be swept aside by the tide of history.

I hope, for your sake, and the sake of Chief Spence, that you decide soon, because I don’t think any of us should need to wait one more day.

Best regards,

Marc “Richard”

For a Magic 2013

so it seems to be in vogue to post one of those ‘end of the year’, or, as I prefer it, ‘start of the year’ posts. i’ve seen some good ones, some funny ones- this one here, however, will probably be the weirdest because i want to say a few words about magic. now full disclosure up front here- i’ve spent the better part of the last week rereading the harry potter books. i’ve been immersed. it’s the first time since it came out that i read the last one. it made me think; more importantly, it made me feel. now i don’t mean this to trivialize what ideas will follow, but to offer them a bit of context. first things first, though: here’s an anecdote.

once upon a time there was a fantasy fiction course, taught by a professor who led off with the idea that in order to serve a story- a good story- magic must be believable. sounds crazy! how can magic be believable? seeing the looks on her students’ faces, she offered to demonstrate ‘real’ magic to her students- she singled one out, somewhere in the middle of the auditorium, and said to him: “stand up”. the student stood. “that,” the professor is supposed to have said, “is magic.” the professor caused action at a distance- without touching the student, without exerting any physical force on him, she caused him to stand.

this is the crux of it. we are all then wizards and witches, because we carry this power with us everywhere, at all times. we use it constantly, every day. there are some things that we make with our hands- some things we can sculpt and build and create by acting on matter. our creation is tangible and sits before us. we can point to it and there is no need for words because its form is self-evident. its characteristics and behaviour are bound by predictable physical laws which manifest identically to all observers. there are other things, however, that cannot be sculpted and built and created this way. relationships. communities. we cannot physically force each other to change our thoughts, to master our feelings- we can manipulate the body of another, but it is only magic that allows us to manipulate the soul.

this is manipulation sans malice ni rancune, in the way a carpenter manipulates her tool, and the process, obviously, works both ways. we are radically permeable to each other- every syllable, every pause, every sigh, every stutter has an impact. i speak and my words have an impact- i am spoken to and i am impacted. we are all better for what others have given us, far beyond physical objects and trinkets: the parts of themselves others have given us through their words. this magic is ancient and it is subtle. no one can predict the consequences of a given incantation, because ideas have lives of their own once uttered, and because they interact with each other and with ourselves in a complex- a staggeringly complex- web of interactions.

there is magic in us. there is magic in the decision to attend a party, or to leave it. there is magic in the decision to go to work, or to quit it. there is magic in waking up in a lovers’ arms and saying good morning- there is magic in saying goodbye. magic exists on a spectrum- we can imagine the dark arts as those ideas/words/thoughts/looks/communications which serve to isolate, knock down, destroy, and defile others, and noble magic as those incantations which unite, build up, create, and honour them. like everything this is not a binary operation, and like all magic such judgments are tied precisely to the time place and season. but while we can’t describe it- can’t quite put our fingers on it, can’t quite nail it down in its entirety- we can perceive it.

this magic is the rush of fire in a soldier’s gut when her general speaks. it is the electric thrill of learning the name of a stranger. it is the proud glory of free expression- of giving form to the abstract, of transforming an idea, without physical, independent existence, into an utterance, which forms it and allows it to propagate. words change the world. we are permeated with magic every moment of our lives: but so much of that magic which transpires around us is so banal, so uninteresting, that we stop noticing it.

over 2012, i have been bewitched by more than a few spells. i have hurt and been hurt. i have described and been described. i have greeted and said goodbye. all of these experiences which have changed me so deeply, the ones i will always remember, were spoken. at the beginning of the year, in this space, i resolved to enter this year as a ‘whole person’- leaving it, i see it is not just myself which is whole, but my surroundings as well. to borrow obi-wan kenobi’s formulation: this ‘discursive magic’ surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together.

and so for 2013 i will simply resolve to be aware of this magic, and to the best of my ability, to use it for good. i know that saying ‘good morning’ can be the difference between jumping in front of the metro and heading into work. i know that saying ‘keep going’ can be the difference between falling asleep in a snowbank and making it safely home. i know that saying ‘i love you’… well, i know that that is magic of the most powerful sort. i will be conscious of it, and i hope that you, reader, will be too. tell others. you don’t need to borrow my flowery incantations, but remember the spell i have cast in these lines. this conjuration you are reading, like all the millions of others conjured around you, and those which you yourself conjure, can not leave you unchanged.

i will speak the truth, even to myself. i will speak kindness, even when i am hurt. i will ask questions and embrace that hearing the answers will change me. i will know my questions will change others. i will be aware of how small my part is, but join my voice enthusiastically to the choir. we know, and have known for a long time now, that things are changing, but we are not riding into disaster unarmed. we have ourselves, and we have each other: we have big dreams, big ideas, and between us everything we need to make them real. sometimes it seems like things are out of control, and frankly for the most part they are, but that shouldn’t bother us, for magic is subtle and will lead us where we’re meant to go.

all my very best for 2013.

Early Thesis Thoughts

the high points of my thesis

for anyone curious, i’m currently preparing a master’s thesis in a program called ‘francophone literatures and media resonance’. in my case what this means, in layman’s terms, is that i study twitter. specifically, i’m out to investigate the theory that social media reflects and interprets the social discourse in a similar way as did literature over the last 150 years. let’s define some terms.

‘social media’ refers to the ensemble of online communications where readers are also writers. when you read a book, you can’t write content into it. when you listen to the radio, you have no control over what the station is playing. you can’t control what is shown on tv, and if you try, you’ll get edited out. however, on twitter, facebook, reddit, or wikipedia, for example, reader contribution is absolutely fundamental, and previous similar networks have fallen apart when contributions ceased. in traditional media, there is a production company, publishing house, or broadcast network that frames and directs (you could say ‘narrates’) the message. this framer/director/narrator is the simple architecture of the site- it governs the form, but not the content, of the message.

‘social discourse’ refers to the whole ensemble of everything said and/or written down in a society. it includes political discourse, economic, literary, judiciary, artistic, poetic, linguistic, gender, and all other discourses. this discourse can be conceived of, but not perceived, by any individual reader/writer (who is anchored to her own social-economic-political-cultural circumstances). All readers/writers contribute to it, and their contributions are informed by it, by ‘that thick is communicable’. thus the social discourse informs, and is informed by, the entirety of a society’s information output.

finally, when i say ‘literature’ i really mean the comic novel, which, in a french context, we can trace back to about as far as the railway paperback in the mid 19th century. one critical interest of the novel is that many multiple characters speak different opinions, in different ways, leading the ‘hero’, the subject of the story, to or from his goal. in the case of the novel though, these characters are all created and narrated by one singular author (or a group of authors not comprising all readers), edited by a singular editor (or group of editors, again not comprising all readers). the novel, like social media, can be described as ‘radically permeable’ to social discourse.

so why study such a thing? it’s interesting because we know a lot about the ways in which traditional media influence the way we speak, act, and think, but we have very little idea about how social media do. part of this is because they are so new- few predate the 21st century. however, if we can identify structural differences between examples of social media and equivalent examples of traditional media (eg. wikipedia v. encyclopaedia, craiglist v. classified ads, reddit v. messenger boards, and most controversially fb and twitter v. realist comic novels), we might come up with, if not answers, some more pertinent questions.

because let’s be clear- social media is revolutionary, and its just as well, because we live in revolutionary times. there are big changes that need to happen in our relationships: foremost with the environment, and then with other human beings throughout the world. the last four years have shown us a social and economic system encountering its natural limits, resulting in persistent injustice. if our social discourse is read by traditional media, we are lost- repeating the same talking points, remaking the same stories, and being directed by fewer and fewer conglomerates. things will continue as they are until their inevitable collapse.

in the social media, however, there is new talk. when the structures erected by the publisher, the network, or the editor are removed, each person is free to engage on equal ground with others. there is bleedthrough from the social discourse: Barack Obama is going to be a celebrity on twitter whether his tweets are good or not. The signs and signals erected by traditional media are not evacuated from the social. They are, however, reinterpreted and repurposed.

I put together a couple of papers this fall (in French) concerning specific examples of funny things on Twitter, as well as outlining its basic format, functionality, and grammar. I reference the works of Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtine, Collot, and Genette, among others, as well as the tweets of Donald Trump, Hurricane Sandy, the rock on Mars what Curiosity blowed up, and many more besides. I establish a) that twitter is a linguistic, if not entirely literary, system, b) that twitter is radically permeable to the surrounding social discourse, and c) that some discursive properties of Twitter are user-generated, while others emerge from the interactions of content generated by different users.

from these conclusions, we can ask some interesting questions. what happens semantically when a profile representing a real person interacts with one representing a fictional/dead one, considering their respective places in the social discourse (when i pray to God on Twitter, does he reply?)? How can one discern the significance of a given tweet considering the multitude of ways its author could intend it (U fucking kidding me Pope?)? how do hypertext and hashtags influence the way a tweet is composed (Why do people use hashtags on Facebook?)? In short, what can social media tell us about social discourse that we could not know otherwise?

Hopefully, some answers, or at least some more pertinent questions, will follow.

the part of the police

there’s no easy way to say ‘manifestation’ in english. it is a noun rendered of a verb without object: it is not a protest (against) or a demonstration (to). it is an idea, a feeling- a chorus of emotions made manifest in shared public space. one person can manifest and indeed often does- pouting, screaming, singing, dancing, (fucking) and fighting are all physical manifestations of emotional states.

But just as there is a difference between drizzle and downpour, there is an important difference between these fleeting emotional manifestations and the more durable ones which have rolled through downtown montréal every night for the last month. The police, as we understand them, are mostly able to manage small ‘domestic disturbances’ or some drunks slugging each other on the Main, but how do these police responses scale?

For example, when the cops roll up to a suburban house because the neighbours heard screaming, they are walking into a situation dominated by emotion. They have no way of knowing the dynamics at work in the home they are visiting, and these dynamics are heavily influenced by cultural, linguistic, and historical factors. The police have only one real weapon in their arsenal which could avoid setting off a powder keg (if one were to be present); this being capital-R reason.

The badge, the hat, the patrol car- the sigils and signifiers of the police- all make appeal to the law of the land, which, in our constitutionally democratic belief system, is the product of sober reflection and Reason only. They make clear the legal consequences of any actions which may be taking place, and enforce those consequences as necessary. As always, for the safety of all concerned, a responsible police officer will seek to de-escalate the situation at all turns, dialling screaming down to shouting down to talking down to calm.

Again, how does this scale? It is first important to point out that the night marches are the emotional manifestation of a generation malaise- a creeping terror of the future which is being strip-mined as we speak, paired with institutions which ridicule their concerns. A sign last night read ‘nous sommes devenus des bêtes féroces d’espoir’. When you ignore a child, the child will act out- the solution is neither to cave completely nor to continue ignoring, but rather to identify the problem and consider solutions.

In this context, consider now the effects of certain possible police measures on a crowd of 10 000 young people who already feel marginalized from their society’s political discourse:

1. Ignore the manifestants: they will manifest harder. Certain radical elements will commit acts of violence to call attention to their demands, and as the silence from the institution persists, more and more people will join in their frustration. This will inevitably lead to:

2. Meet them with force: sound cannons, tear gas, water jets, rubber bullets- the kit. This again will do nothing but radicalize the group- as acts of physical violence are committed against individual manifestants who have not personally aggressed the police, the violent sentiment will escalate. If de-escalation promotes everyone’s safety, what does escalation do?

The only sensible option is 3. Don’t Panic. Encourage the main bulk of the march to keep together and keep moving, while isolating trouble spots off to the side where possible, or farther along the route if necessary, Commit to meeting violent elements with less violence than they themselves have used, in the hopes of de-motivating further violent acts by others.

It is imperative to note that the police themselves can do nothing to address the demands of the protestors. The only folks who can do anything to calm this situation are the government- they should annul the Loi 78 before it is struck down by a Charter Challenge and freeze tuition at present levels until at least Fall ’13, while calling a Public Inquiry into the management of Québec’s universities and the future of their funding to decide the question permanently.

Failing that, Charest démissionne- call elections and find a job up north.

Intermission: 2012

A brief intermission. A lot has happened.

It’s happened- it’s 2012 ; it’s the future. It’s time.

I speak to you, my fellow ‘young people’, my fellow, oh, eighty-fives through ninety-twos. You know the sort. We remeber distinctly our first old computers, our ensixty-fours- we remember when one went, for example, ‘on the Internet’. We remember the time when we were (how does one say) discrete. When our image, our person, our ‘authentic self’ was tied up directly in the moment that we lived in.

Minus a few insurance databases or bank records, divided by a few celebrities and public figures, a person existed only in one place. If you wanted to know facts about about a person’s life, or their tastes in shoes or experiences, you would have to have asked them. Maybe a very close friend. You could have called the fixed telephone line in their house at the absolute limit, but it was no substitute for the real thing. The earliest that this crazy far-flung intercommunication action-at-distance thing would have been reasonably possible across continents is now about a hundred years past. Call it 1912.

Too obtuse? Consider your options for attaining, say, a Bible in rural Germany in 1512 and then again in 1612. In the first case, you are paying a fortune. You need to pay someone to get your hand on a copy to transcribe, and then pay for someone to survive the task you put put for them. It probably took a long-ass time. A mere hundred years later, you can simply stroll into any Hölybookprinterßhoppe in town and buy a dozen. It took like a day to make. There’s a stack of them, though it is admittedly revised. Now this is a long time ago, but it’s worth reflecting on the astounding ease of the task in 2012.

In 2012, we are in constant communion. Our lives are accessed without our knowledge, we are snared within the Great Web, that web which desribes the sum total of all interactions, convergences, and breaks with all other people, and those peoples’ relationships with each other. We don’t communicate with our voices anymore. We communicate as we breathe. Automatically. We passively communicate more vividly, richly and in detail than any natural display. If my Facebook, or LinkedIn, or G+ or whatever other plumage doesn’t convey enough, you can e-mail me or message or Skype. Fuck 1912.

God-willing, our great-grandchildren will look back on our hopeless bumbling technical helplessness and laugh. Their lives will be so comfortable, I hope, that they will know no want, or fear of the future. But in 2012, one thing is clear. This world, the world of our parents and our grandparents, set in motion by the actions of our great-grandparents who themselves were born in a world with no electricity, roads, or rails, is attacking that of our grandchildren.

Forget ourselves. We are complicit. We are complicit in the consumerist system and all it takes is ten minutes on Facebook or Friendster whatever to confirm my suspicions. We buy things made in China because they’re cheaper, we put things we can’t afford on credit cards. We do not exist outside the destructive system wasting our resources on trinkets and missiles while the biosphere hangs in the balance. It’s ok. We didn’t make this world. We inherited it.

And so, eightyfives through ninetythrees, the only question that is left is what world our great-grandchildren will inherit from us. Whether it is a blasted hellscape or cozy paradise is up to us. We can’t undone what’s been did, but we can stop it. We are the bridge between the century of the Self, which lost its mind in the trenches, and the century of the Whole, which we are now embarking on. Make no mistake- the whole world, not merely our species but the whole of the biosphere itself is in play.

If we are to fight for our greatgrandkids’ inheritance, of cold winter nights following the long languid turning of the leaves, of truly experiencing the real natural world of our own greatgrandparents and forever back, an experience that all people, by virtue of their existence are blessed with.

If we do not strive actively, in every field, to minimize the harm we do to the world, and redirect the existing systems we are responsible for, there will be nothing else. We know that everything, everything in our modern world is unsustainble, and by definition we don’t have long to correct the problem.

In 2012, I will act as part of the Whole, as a Whole being interacting with the whole world, and with trillions of feather touches steering the avalanche away from the town. I will respect and listen to others. I will give freely of my patience. I will try to understand the way the world works now the better to change it. If I do not, or if I am alone, then all is lost.