A weekly conversation between friends.

  • Fault Lines: Preparing for the Big One.
  • Guest Post: Zig Zags — Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s Presidency.
  • Reading ‘My President is Black’ In Spite Of Privilege.
  • Lil Buck.
  • Fake News? Or Political Propaganda.
  • Looking: For Some Lonely Time.
  • Looking to Moralize About Trudeau's Government? Try the Saudi Arms Deal.
  • Dozing Off.
  • Staying Warm, with Ishmael and Queequeg.
  • Colour Code vs Code Switch: Conversations on Race for Whom? 
  • People with Dicks: Do Better.
  • Donald Glover Redefines Conceptions of Black America
  • And more.

Fault Lines: Preparing for the Big One

Shortly after Kathryn Schulz won the Pulitzer for her sobering assessment of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line and the likely impacts on communities across the Pacific Northwest, I ended up at a house party in East Van. What Schulz describes in “The Really Big One” is terrifying – a looming earthquake off the coast of Vancouver Island that will result in widespread destruction and death on British Columbia’s southern coast. Naturally, I wanted to find out what locals thought about the massive earthquake that has a 1 in 10 chance of occurring within the next 50 years, and will likely result in deaths and casualties in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.

What I heard was that the threat was overblown, and that if you grew up on Vancouver Island or in the lower mainland, you had spent time in school practicing emergency scenarios and were aware of what was in store. Plus, the government had decades of time to prepare, and that they would be ready if it happens.

As one would expect after reading Schulz’s piece, I left that party thinking that these people were delusional as fuck. That they were literally facing a natural disaster of a magnitude unseen in scale and devastation in Canada during modern times, and they felt they could coast by relying on what they were taught in grade school and on the government.

But then I checked myself. Maybe Schulz was all hype, and besides, the government would have a plan.

Turns out my initial impression may have been correct. At least according to Fault Lines (podcast page), a CBC podcast by seismologist and reporter Johanna Wagstaffe, which runs through two terrifying, though likely, scenarios when either a mega-thrust or crustal earthquake hits BC’s southern coast.

Read the full post.

Guest Post: Zigs and Zags — Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s Presidency 

By Daniel Sherwin

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ elegy for the Obama presidency is heartbreaking. Based on four and a half hours of conversation with the president, Coates grapples with the meaning of eight years of a Black man in the White House. Two themes are woven throughout, the singularity of Obama, and the tragedy of Trump.

The tragedy is plain to see. For several years, Coates has been the most prominent journalist arguing that White Supremacy is the driving engine of American politics. His “Case for Reparations” is indispensable. It puts faces to the tragedies of American injustice, and shows that state-sanctioned discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black people in America has persisted from slavery to the present day.

True to this thesis, Coates has no patience for those who would downplay the role of race in explaining Trumpism, “In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as “simple” as racism could not explain it.” “No.” retorts Coates “Racism is never simple.”*

The singularity of Obama comes from his unique relationship to American history. Obama grew up outside of the mainstream American racial order. His parents committed no crime with their inter-racial marriage. Through his grandparents, Obama saw the best, and not the worst, of White America. He is a believer, in Coates’ phrase, in “White innocence.”

In Coates’ telling, this belief becomes Obama’s defining feature, his greatest political asset and the cause of his great blindness. In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Coates explores this core dimension of his thesis – that a Black man who believes what Coates believes, who believes in White Supremacy and not White Innocence, could never become president.

Obama’s faith in White America, and in American institutions, perhaps explains his calm in the face of Trump’s election. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” Obama says, “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”

* It does no good, as Coates would surely agree, to lean on White Supremacy as an explanation if its only effect is to demonize Republican voters and foster a sense of smug, cosmopolitan superiority. On this score, two short articles on the experience of the what working class in America, one in Cracked (and endorsed by Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr) and the other in the Harvard Business Review, are invaluable. I would also quote Heather McGhee of Demos who merges the two lines of analysis in her elegant phrase “Race is the weapon in the class war” (again in an Ezra Klein interview).


Reading ‘My President is Black’ In Spite Of Privilege 

On Friday, we all listened to the latest Code Switch podcast on explanatory comma. It comes off lighthearted, but it brings up all these issues surrounding how we talk to one another, in what contexts, with what expectations, and through what lenses. More immediately relevant, it suggested to me that there may be value in approaching ‘My President is Black,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memorial to the Obama presidency, from the perspective of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s response to it. I had accidentally read Cottom first, and it primed me for better understanding why Coates roots his piece in Obama’s understanding of, and relationships with, White people.
Cottom writes early on in her essay:

I am black. I come from black people who are southerners even when they were New Yorkers for a spell. We are the black American story of enslavement, rural migration, urban displacement, resistance, bootstrapping, mobility, and class fragility. In this milieu we, as a friend once described it, know our whites. To know our whites is to understand the psychology of white people and the elasticity of whiteness. It is to be intimate with some white persons but to critically withhold faith in white people categorically. It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem.

Coates, for his part, suggests that Obama transcended racial tensions because he was uniquely optimistic and trusting of White people, and they responded to this. Through Coates’ writing, we are implicitly asked to question whether Obama was wrong to trust White people, wrong to be optimistic about them, and how this trust undermined advances he might have been able to work towards for Black Americans. But Cottom makes a more difficult ask: was Obama wrong because he believes he can transcend race without permission from White people?

Cottom and Coates both write with a palpable anger and sorrow. But I am realizing that Coates’ article, the tone of it, his drive towards emotion and eloquence, as opposed to bluntness, may allow us to read it comfortably as a post-mortem that places blame in the abstract on White Supremacy and is not an immediate call for action; that leaves us assured that Obama still trusts us to do the right thing.

Read the full post.

Lil Buck

Fake News? Or Political Propaganda

The proliferation of fake news scares the shit out of me — that we’ve so quickly slipped into a world that is casually described as ‘post-truth’, one in which fringe political movements are strengthened by social media algorithms, and reckless conspiracy theories can have major impacts on presidential campaigns.

“Fake news is so easy to make trend on Facebook that Macedonian teens are earning up to $3,000 a day duping Trump supporters with viral fake stories that confirm their viewpoints,” Ryan Broderick points out, in an terrifying story on Buzzfeed.

I was really struck by Mark Danner’s recent piece, titled The Real Trump, which describes in shocking detail his experience at a Trump rally in Pittsburgh, days before the election:

The rich satisfactions of a politics of villainy! Complicated decades-long tales of technological advance and social change dissolve into the self-satisfied sneer on a hated face. All around me I saw it reproduced, mostly behind bars, on “Crooked Hillary” buttons and “Hillary for Jail!” sweatshirts and much, much worse. “Hillary Clinton murders children!” a middle-aged woman waiting in the two-mile-long line had shouted. “It’s been proved. Hillary Clinton rapes and murders children.”

In David Remnick’s essential profile of Barack Obama, the President too warns of the dangers of fake news:

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

But perhaps referring to the rapid and deliberate spread of misinformation as ‘the problem of fake news’ is itself misleading. Writing in The Globe and MailSarah Kendzior argues that,

“Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting…when Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.”

Propaganda is a problem as old as politics. I fear, however, that in an age of social media and the internet, finding solutions will be difficult.  How do we push back? Can Facebook or Twitter stop the flood? Are they willing too? Is a Chrome extension going to save us?

Looking: For Some Lonely Time

We have arrived at the shortest day of the year, today, which comes with some apprehension for me. The inching down of daylight hours finally stops. But it also means that it’s time to accept winter’s arrival and prepare for some bitter months ahead. Although the festive season and social gatherings this month are a great time to enjoy with family and friends, the dark, dull days of winter can be a lonely experience.

So let me take a moment to stop and reflect on this. Loneliness, introversion, social isolation, solitude...

Although related, the words all mean different things to everyone who experiences them at different times. We know that that loneliness is probably bad for our health. But we also live in a hyper-connected and distractible world. Time for reflection and engaged connection can be missing from our daily lives. With a pressure to connect, network, engage, it can feel like you’re falling behind when you don’t find a sense of community and meaning in your daily work.  

Read the full post.

If You’re Looking to Moralize About Trudeau’s Government, Try the Saudi Arms Deal, Not Some Fundraising Pseudo-scandal BS

Last week, as the Globe and Mail celebrated one of its writers for winning coverage on the Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. announced that they are blocking sales of precision weapons to the country over “poor targeting”  in the ongoing conflict with Yemen.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion says the Canadian armoured vehicle exports, worth $15 billion, will continue. As reported by the Globe: “Mr. Dion said Canada feels it is doing a pretty good job of monitoring Saudi Arabia for illicit use of combat vehicles, although he did not indicate how this is done.” The Canadian government maintains that it has never come across an instance where the machines have been misused. . . . . Mr. Dion revealed, however, that Ottawa has cautioned the Saudis to be careful how they fight in Yemen, where cluster bombs have been blamed for widespread civilian deaths. “We have asked to the Saudi coalition to be much more respectful and cautious about the equipment you are talking about.”

The secrecy surrounding this deal is a disgrace (read this story from April; it makes me think that the quickest way to end it would be to expose every single one of the 500 subcontractors involved), and it’s a shame that as Trudeau goes about undoing the work of the Conservative Government he can only muster a shoulder shrug of fait accompli regarding the deal.

UNICEF stated that as a result of the war: “At least one child dies every ten minutes in Yemen because of preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections.” And the NYTimes produced a short multimedia story that introduces you to some of those children.


Dozing Off 

Staying Warm, with Ishmael and Queequeg

According to the infallible document that is the Canadian Farmer’s Almanac, we’re in for a long, exceptionally cold, and very snowy winter. Here in Toronto, it hit us like a tonne of bricks just last week.

How can we better cope with the cold and the snow? For me, it’s finding joy in the little things. Watching neighbors who hardly speak to each other throughout the warm months join happily together in the early morning to dislodge a car from a snowbank, laughing at the one person who inevitably takes a tumble; arriving at work 45 minutes late without shame; spiking your coffee with the eggnog that one of your coworkers brought in that you vow to yourself to replace but won’t replace; bathing for hours…

But I’ve not yet mentioned the greatest of the simple winter joys — one that has existed since time immemorial, and is described with absolute precision by Herman Melville in Chapter 11 of Moby Dick:

“We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.

Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the headboard with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our knee-pans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blankets between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Colour Code vs Code Switch: Conversations on Race for Whom?  

Colour Code and Code Switch are podcasts that explore race and identity, but from vastly different perspectives. Colour Code, by the Globe and Mail, examines race and identity in Canada, and as you would expect from a national publication providing a platform for these conversations in this country, is focused on demonstrating that these issues are real to White Canadians. NPR’s Code Switch, on the other hand, is well past that initial phase, and is instead fostering real discussions among racialized peoples in the United States around the intricacies of race and identity.  

Take for example how each podcast approaches White Fragility. White Fragility refers to the defensiveness of White people when discussions of race challenge their privilege. Our society insulates White people from confronting issues of race and identity in the manner racialized people do on a daily basis. When they are confronted, they feel threatened, and often assume the status of victim, derailing real progress.

Colour Code addressed White Fragility after co-host Denise Balkissoon’s now infamous interview with Ian Power (the interview, the dissection, and Balkissoon’s column on White Fragility). The main point of the episode was to demonstrate that White Fragility is real, and that it is often a barrier to real conversations on race and identity.

The existence of White Fragility comes as no surprise to racialized Canadians. While many of us may not know it by that specific name, we have certainly witnessed it in some form or the other.  

Code Switch explores essentially the same topic in its most recent episode Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma but from the perspective of racialized people. Instead of placing White people at the centre of the discussion, it focuses on the extent to which racialized individuals should provide cultural context of their lives to White people. As the hosts explain, racialized people often feel as if they have to make it easy for White people to understand their experiences and perspectives, rather than expecting them to put in the effort to learn about them on their own.

As a racialized person, I find Colour Code entertaining, but I don’t really learn anything about race or identity that I can put into practice in my life. This isn’t the case after listening to a Code Switch episode, where even if I disagree with a particular perspective, I internalize what is being discussed as it makes me confront issues of race and identity in ways that I never considered before.  

Colour Code is a bold, transformational step by a mainstream media platform to introduce the complexities around race and identity to Canadians. But, sadly, it’s not meant for someone like me, who is past the introductory stage, and looking for real engagement on these issues in the Canadian setting.


People with Dicks: Do Better


I listened to this podcast on dick pics so you don’t have to. It 100% affirms everything most women know: many guys like sending dick pics, but only gay guys like receiving dick pics. I don’t have to actually mention women in the summary because women’s consent and desires do not factor into dick pic-ing at all. One man interviewed, who sent 5 dick pics that day alone, says, “And they say women don’t like dick pics, but I don’t know. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t. I mean, it’s a dick pic.” He probably can’t imagine a woman needing anything more than his dick to orgasm as well.

Further (and more empathetic) reading: “I’m often asked why I started [Critique My Dick Pic], and the truth is that I woke up one morning to a dick pic so good that I felt inspired to change the others. That’s all it was—one excellent, well-planned pic from a person whose dick I explicitly wanted to see. I was jarred by how unnecessarily rare that move was and struck by the conviction that people with dicks could do better.”

Donald Glover Redefines Conceptions of Black America

2016 was a remarkable year for Donald Glover. His television show Atlanta premiered on FX to critical acclaim, while his third studio album as Childish Gambino released this year to similar praise.

Atlanta is revolutionary in the themes and manner in which it explores African American culture and identity.
Atlanta has received rave reviews for its originality, exploration of themes such as privilege and masculinity, and its ‘slow pace’ storytelling.

"Awaken, My Love!” also dropped to widespread acclaim this year for its imagination. The album has a distinct retro-funk feel, but it’s more than a homage. As Carrie Battan argues, it’s part of Glover’s broader aim for 2016, which appears to be complicating popular understandings of African American art and life.

The Week's Links:

  • Douglas Quan’s fantastic feature in the National Post on whether we are witnessing the death of Chinatowns in North America, with particular attention given to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the neighbourhood’s rapid gentrification.
  • A recent Globe editorial argues that the tragedy of Aleppo may mark the end of the unipolar era, and the beginning of a multipolar one in which countries like Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran will have greater influence on geopolitics. One casualty of the unipolar era, the editorial suggests, is the notion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — a flawed notion, as any political science student will tell you, but one that for decades was subscribed to, in theory, by the world’s liberal democracies.
  • Robin Wright argues that the collapse of the Islamic State will not minimize the threat its extremist ideology poses, as it has taken hold in the region.
  • Essential reading on how the Canadian media is creating a new Trump: “[O]nce she started talking about screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values,” her average share of news coverage jumped from 13 percent to 47 percent.”
What We're Listening To: 
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