The Decimation of Academia

Post-secondary institutions in B.C. are no longer “government funded.”  They are “government supported.”  What does this really mean?  It means revenue generation is more important than education for our province’s leaders.  The economy is more important than democratic principles.  International students paying higher fees are encouraged to attend, while subsidies for those who have limited access, those who face obstacles and personal challenges, are no longer a priority.  The official rhetoric of job creation, eradication of fiscal inefficiencies and redundancies in the system (thus growing the economy, or so the argument goes) hides an underlying assumption.  Learning for its own sake, particularly a liberal education rich in arts and sciences courses, is being systematically dismantled as the budget wars escalate.  I ask you – what is at the root of democracy if not an assertion of ethical principles, an environment that encourages intellectual debate, an educational system that values alternatives, voices that question the status quo?

We are supposed to be working for the good of the students, to be learner-centred.  To me, by the way, this is a not-for-profit enterprise.  The government of B.C.’s elected representatives are not only turning their backs on academic education and the creative arts, they are shooting a hole through their hearts. Even sadder than that, however, and of greater consequence (since governments rise and topple after all), is how faculty across the province are being forced into buying into this model, trying to identify where to cut their operating budgets or which courses to eliminate; cutting off their noses to spite their faces.  It’s like choosing the most suitable way to die a noble death.  Shall we drink the poison and get it over with quickly?  Or do we sharpen our pencils and hone our arguments, ready to put up the fight of our lives?

That administrators bend to the government’s persuasion is unsurprising, being ultimately accountable to these new draconian policies (no union protection makes them very vulnerable). But if instructors – who hold those democratic principles dear and have spent their lives discussing them with students every single day, who have academic freedom to disagree – are willing to get on board the profit train by embracing the corporate new world order, then the future of this species is in big trouble indeed.  History demonstrates (though we probably won’t have history as a subject much longer) that intellectuals are the first to go, as one of the biggest threats to domineering and oppressive regimes.  “Those pesky critical thinkers, all they ever do is disagree with us and make our job more difficult.  Here they come again with their talk of fairness, their ranting against injustice, their defense of art and culture.  Isn’t there a way to argue that they are no longer necessary?  Let’s make them prove that their students get jobs.  Let’s make them account for their spending.  Let’s turn them into us.  That should shut them up.”

Guess what?  Even if you soon might not be able to learn about it in school, power is everywhere, it is insidious, and it takes a very special skill set to critique it, to remain vigilant against its abuses, and to push against its overwhelming force. While you can, it’s best that you learn this.


Following the U.S. Down the Slippery Slope is Unethical

A recent article in the Huffington Post discusses the Canadian government’s current approach to terrorism.  In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Canadian Conservative Government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is revisiting the anti-terrorism policies that were ushered in post 9/11 but allowed to lapse after five years.   One of them would allow for “preventative detention.”  We all know what that means – an erosion of civilian rights in the name of national security.  Incarceration due to suspicion alone.  

Do we really want to follow the U.S. down this slippery slope – holding people without charging them, perhaps eventually condoning brutal interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture)?  Do we want to party in the streets when someone is murdered without due process, without the chance of arrest or the benefit of a legal trial?  Do we think assassination is an acceptable answer to violence?  

Clearly, if this can happen, we do not live in a democracy and we do not practice an ethical approach towards our fellow human beings.  It appears our leaders may be headed in the direction of the U.S.  Our southern neighbour, in its response to terror, has undeniably flouted international law and fueled already extant ire from those opposed to its political and economic treatment of other cultures and countries.  Being a struggling and declining empire can turn a country into a rogue nation blind to its own systemic violence.  That is a very dangerous place to be, and it is the dark side of characterizing yourselves as either invincible or as victims.  

I am not denying the perpetuation of unspeakable acts and the appalling deaths of innocent people.  No one should tolerate such brutality and despicable hatred.  I am arguing against a vindictive response that makes things worse rather than better.  What form should our intolerance of terrorism take?  Folding a sense of a people’s victimization into state policy is precisely what has happened in Israel, as if the terrible mistreatment of Palestinians in the present is justified if you belong to a people who suffered systematic eradication in the past.  So taboo a topic is the present manifestation of Holocaust history that many Jewish academics who have tried to criticize Israeli state policies have been mercilessly derided, while non-Jews who cast a negative light on these issues are cursorily dismissed as anti-Semitic.

What message do we want to leave the next generation in terms of what is appropriate as a stance against brutality and violence?  How should a nation respond to the threats against it?  Can it act responsibly within an ethical framework in ways that do not deny human rights, exacerbate conflict, or invite further violence?  This is a difficult and complex question that nevertheless demands urgent consideration before we devolve into a new world order of perpetual war.

Childhood Fears Return…

Seeing and hearing North Korea’s puffed up posturing and increasingly threatening rhetoric, I’m reminded of my childhood fears of a Nuclear Holocaust.  I was quite anxious about it, particularly as I tried to fall asleep in my dark room (things were always scariest then).  I cursed the inventors of nuclear technologies, knowing my fears were warranted.  

I once heard Dr. Helen Caldicott speak at UBC.  Since she knew so much more about the nuclear threat than I did, her words concretized my earlier fears.  Apparently we don’t live in a “post-nuclear” age anymore than we live in a “post-colonial” one.  Do we really have to be dragged back to this dreadful place?  Why must we be revisited by this terrifying menace? Can’t we have banishment rather than brandishment?  Perhaps it’s time for a public screening of Dr. Strangelove.   Only this time it’s the nuclear missiles rather than Vera Lynn singing: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”  

Memories are Not “Like the Corners of My Mind”

Nor are memories “misty water-coloured” as the song describes.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading on memory, trauma, and history lately.  Of course, my particular interest is in how art is implicated in these issues.  What art can do.

Memories are tangled and interwoven and cannot be relegated to the corners of one’s mind, whether they are personal, communal, or national, private or shared.  They constrain, limit, and haunt the present, but they can also be redirected productively and creatively.

One of the books I find most compelling is Gene Ray’s Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 and Beyond.  This book is really about negotiating the past to find a radical ethical politics in the present.

What is forgotten in official histories is as important as what is remembered and how.  Many of Ray’s condemnations, particularly of the U.S. government, are necessary, profound, and urgently forceful.  Yet the book remains hopeful in terms of agency, empowerment, and refusal (the refusal of political domination, violence, and capitalism’s relentless inscribing of our world in terms of exchange value).  It is a challenging and difficult book, but I am clinging to it as one example of how to move forward ethically and empathetically in light of this century’s inheritance of catastrophe and trauma, as well as the ongoing manifestations of appalling violence and cruelty.

Brutality, Solidarity, Art

“We’re always both: the state and the terrorist.” – Gerhard Richter

My friend Sheryl would say that nothing makes me happier than a good book about trauma or depression.  Today I’m sitting and reading from an assortment of such good books: Alex Danchev’s On Art and War and Terror; Stephen K. Levine’s Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: the Arts and Human Suffering; Paul Williams, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities.  There is a purpose to this; I’m preparing two upper-level classes, one on Art and Trauma, the other on Museums and Collecting.  The former class demands an ethics regarding (and a sensitivity to) the suffering of others.  And it must point to a way to continue living even if the events endured are incomprehensible or unspeakable.

To return to the everyday, there is a lot of media coverage of bullying.  There is an attempt to clearly delineate the victims and the perpetrators.  Yet, what is absent in this discussion is the fact that there is a spectrum of bullying and we’re all on it somewhere.  It’s not so straightforward that there are bullies and there are the bullied.  People both bully and are bullied, in varying degrees at various moments in their lives.

Now extrapolate to the bigger picture and the “banality of evil,” or “the psychopathology of everday life” or whatever you choose to call it.  There are spectrums of oppression, intolerance, coercion, and state authority.  How else does one explain proliferating atrocity?  There just aren’t that many 100% evil people in the world and that is a fact difficult to swallow.  We like to demonize; we like our monsters.  Yet people reject the complexities required to understand the spectrum because ultimately this is more disturbing, this is where things get extraordinarily uncomfortable.  However, our own actions will haunt us (as will our inactions).  It’s the problem of history – the problem of the perpetrator and the problem of the victim.

Yes, it’s easy for me to sit in the safety of my own home pondering these things.  Trauma, though, spares no one.  We all have proximity to the sinkhole that is the world we’ve engendered.  We are all complicit in the creation of our reality no matter how good, how sensitive, how brave, or how innocent we are.  And we all have to climb out of this sinkhole in solidarity or not at all.

Where is the hope?  According to Gerhard Richter: “I perceive our only hope – or our one great hope – as residing in art.”  Art, that activity as ancient as we are, that persists in the face of intense censorship, and that is currently suffering the abuses of funding cut-backs.  Art has never been elevated to the status it should have in critiquing, unsettling, or disturbing humanity, in its radical questioning of the status quo and its demolition of established belief systems, in its exposure of horror, in its call for morality, justice, and equality.  Could that be the link to solidarity and action, could art be what helps us live with, albeit never fully comprehend, trauma and atrocity?  Well, imagine a world without art.  You can’t, can you?  Because a world without art is incomprehensible.  So why don’t we pay more attention to this unsung facilitator of our own redemption?

Why Aren’t Ordinary Americans Enraged?

I highly recommend the book Griftopia by Matt Taibbi (an editor from Rolling Stone).  If you’ve ever wanted someone to explain the very complex machinations behind the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the financial meltdown in the U.S., this is the book for you.  But don’t expect a measured tone – Taibbi is boiling mad.  The rage he feels sears through the pages.  Upon reading this book, I wonder why all U.S. citizens aren’t just as angry as he is, but I guess not many people go to the trouble to truly understand the scope of what has occurred and the numerous levels of government and corporate involvement in these events.

Where am I left at the end of this book?  It no longer seems to matter who is or becomes President, there is too much damage to undo.  The United States is no longer a world power, at least in financial terms.  And what else counts these days?  Militarism?  Takes cash.  Political clout?  Sold out to the investment and financial sectors.

What follows are just three of the many seminal quotes from Griftopia.

On Alan Greenspan (Taibbi calls him “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe”): “…by the time Greenspan left the Fed in 2006, Americans had lost trillions upon trillions of dollars in two gigantic bubble scams, and we had gone from being a nation with incredible stored wealth in personal savings to being a country that collectively is now way over its head in hock, with no way out in sight.  As of this writing, America’s international debt is somewhere in the region of $115 trillion, with our debt now well over 50 percent of GDP.  This is debt on a level never before seen in a modern industrialized country.”

What Taibbi doesn’t mention is that a great deal of America’s debt is owed to China, hence the new term “Chimerica.”  He does mention that the Federal Reserve is supposed to protect the country’s money, but that’s certainly not what happened.  Greenspan just kept printing the stuff.

Taibbi notes that the American economy has been run like a casino, but unlike a casino, it gives betting money to people that don’t have any resources to pay it back!

On the bailouts: “…we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.  We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand new system of roads and highways.  With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country – and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.”

Of course, it’s more important to keep greedy criminals afloat than to bail out your nation’s own citizens.  Who cares about them, they’re only your bread and butter…

On the selling of infrastructure and landmarks to Arab nations and cash-rich countries: “…we now literally have to beg [them] to take our national monuments off our hands at huge discounts, just so that our states don’t fall one by one in a domino rush of defaults and bankruptcies.  In other words, we’re being colonized…”

Colonized in one gigantic yardsale!

How the mighty can fall due to rampant deregulation, short-sighted get-rich-quick schemes, and diabolical political lobbying.  If you’re like me, you’ll read this book and every few pages you will sink to a new low of disbelief and despair.

It’s non-fiction that reads like fiction.  It’s hard to believe the people in financial power didn’t see this coming…more disturbingly, they were getting so rich so fast, they just didn’t care.  Goodbye world power, hello dire consequences.  Welcome to (only the beginning of) the financial apocalypse.

Themes of the Week: Hunger and Plastic

There were some prestigious guests at Capilano University this past week.  Douglas Coutts, a senior advisor with the United Nations World Food Program, and Captain Charles Moore, advocate for the oceans of the world.  Douglas Coutts has developed an interdisciplinary minor in Hunger Studies at Auburn University in Alabama and is encouraging other educational institutions to develop similar models.  Charles Moore has written the book Plastic Ocean to raise awareness about the horrific impacts to marine life caused by our insatiable production and discarding of plastic (The image above is from  When Captain Moore signed my copy of his book I noticed he was wearing a necklace made of coloured bits and bobs of plastic debris found on the beach.  The contemporary version of the shark tooth necklace worn by seafarers of the past?  Both types of adornment are sad, but for different reasons.

These men have such passion and zeal for what they’re doing, in spite of the scale of the issues and the heart wrenching things they’ve witnessed.  A lesson in not being paralyzed by the scope of the world’s problems, but rather painstakingly, consistently, and incrementally working to change things, and inspiring and encouraging others to do so.

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