Friday, December 11, 2015

Stop confusing communism with authoritarianism

A recent Time article (Meet the World's Remaining Communists) describes an ongoing project by Dutch photographer Jan Banning to capture images of those still holding fast to an ideology that has been largely presumed dead since 1989. For the most part I have no problem with this article, save for one paragraph that is an intellectual rock in my shoe, betraying as it does an essentially Western view of the supposed fall of communism:

Venturing behind certain doors in Portugal, Nepal and Italy, Banning, through his photographs, wonders “how could you still say you are a communist after everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union?” And yet, he finds, that dream persists.

It is hard to tell from this passage whether Banning is being quoted directly, or if the writer (Rachel Lowry) is putting words in his mouth. Either way, however, the "question" posed above reflects the dumbed-down version of events that those of us in the West were encouraged by our government and media to believe, which is that the atrocities that occurred in the Soviet Union were directly caused by the communist ideology in and of itself. According to the de facto Western mindset, communism and authoritarianism are one and the same.

The problem with almost any major ideology is that no matter how idealistic the intent behind those who first articulate it on paper, by the time it is implemented (or shortly thereafter), it becomes twisted into something that serves the interests of those with power and resources at the expense of those without.

This is as true of the communism envisioned by Marx and Engels as it is of the liberal democracy promulgated by the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States of America. The former was meant to be a series of worker-run 'soviets', embodying a classless society with a ground-up democracy. The latter was also a dream of the classless society, albeit by way of a representative democracy that exalts private property rights and capital.

That neither lived up to their respective ideals is not any sign of defectiveness on the part of either school of thought - both are simply examples of how human beings exploit any advantage they can to consolidate and maintain power over others, thus rendering meaningless whatever ideological banner under which this occurs.

When Lowry (or Banning?) refers to "everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union", we can only assume the reference is to the repression and atrocities that occurred under Josef Stalin and his successors. However, it would be intellectually dishonest to say that Stalinism (or, left-wing authoritarianism) is interchangeable with communism. Certainly, an iron-fisted dictatorship was never what Marx had in mind.

It is journalistic false accusation to say a "movement" was responsible for the gruesome excesses of an authoritarian regime. While it was a "movement" that led a successful revolution culminating in Russia's communist regime, it was a corrupt locus of absolute power that carried out atrocities in communism's name though not its spirit.

By the same token, the United States has a history of supporting fascist regimes, which would seem to fly in the face of the ideals that America-boosters would profess to uphold. Would it be accurate to say that the 'movement' of American democracy and freedom is to held responsible for the bloodshed and misery that arose from backing those regimes, or should the blame be placed at the feet of self-serving politicians and their corporate string-pullers?

The communist East and the anti-communist West both had their mythologies, built on nominal adherence to political ideologies that largely served as window dressing for the bald pursuit of power in and of itself. Despite the lullabyes to which we sing to ourselves to sleep, any major ideology put into practice inevitably boils down to a simple commandment: fall in line or risk getting seriously hurt.

The same was true of Russia under Stalin and "communism" as it is of Russia under Putin and "capitalism".

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump: Merchant of Outrage

I don't know whether to feel contempt or pity for those who continue not only to support Donald Trump in his bid for the GOP nomination, but to feel even more emboldened every time he ups the ante on offensiveness.

How devoid of passion must someone be to find salvation in Trump and the increasingly bombastic nature of his rhetoric? I've heard it said by his fans that "he says out loud what everyone else is thinking." If those are the thoughts that everyone is keeping to themselves, then God help us one and all.

In The Donald we are seeing a thorough composite of every cynical lesson that electoral politics has ever had to offer, with little if any pretense of trying to inspire anyone with positive change. Rather, we have a Frankenstein haphazardly lashed together with the rancid body parts of every worst instinct known to (political) man.

What sort of individual would consider Trump their savior? Is there really nothing more to one's sense of civic duty than simply supporting whoever mirrors their own xenophobic bitterness? In Trump do they see someone who will break the seal on a heretofore suppressed desire to eradicate any lingering progressive instinct in America's institutions?

Particularly when reading the comments sections of various right wing news sites, which after all is where you'll find the id of the American right laid bare, it becomes apparent that Trump's momentum is being propelled by a bottomless well of punitive-minded anger, and that Trump is providing a release valve for that negative energy.

In a previous post ("Trump support: angry populism as therapeutic entertainment?"), I concluded:

What Trump is tapping into is a simple desire for a culture war (against Mexicans, liberals, gays, etc.), as opposed to any notion of improving the economy, the overall quality of life, and the institution of democracy itself.

Not much has changed from that July 5 writing, except that my views on Trump (and right wing populism in general) have hardened and coalesced around a single word:

Outrage.

I came to this conclusion recently while tuning in to 'conservative' talk radio programs, where it seems that the hosts are never trying to actually enlighten or inform, but instead just find things in current events that will stoke the anger of their listeners - as long as that anger is never directed towards conservative politicians.

One morning it hit me: these people are selling nothing more than outrage. Furthermore, I realized that the people who tune into this stuff day in and day out must be looking for little more than to be outraged themselves. Why? Is it because stoked anger is a replacement for spiritual energy, and that a little shot of outrage is needed to get them through the day? After all, who doesn't feel centered until they've popped a vein in their head by mid-morning?

And so it is also through that lens that I have come to view Donald Trump and his unflappable army of supporters. He is a merchant of outrage, and they are nothing more than willing outrage consumers. It is a two-way deal with an unspoken and unwritten understanding, and so far each are delivering on the other's expectations.

That is the only way to explain the longevity of Trump's support despite his infantile rants and slurs, as well as the futility of trying to engage his supporters in any sort of rational debate about his qualifications for the job at hand.

As for things that remain unchanged since my July 5 post, I still don't think Trump has broad enough appeal to win any presidential race (assuming his campaign thus far hasn't been a kind of stealth prank on behalf of the Democrats).

Up here in Canada we've just finished witnessing our incumbent Conservative government increasingly ratchet up the bigotry over the course of the recent federal election, only to find that pandering to the most hardened rightward crust of their base did not pay enough dividends once the ballots were counted. And so by assuming the worst in Canadian voters, Stephen Harper inadvertently handed Justin Trudeau the keys to the Prime Minister's Office. (In fairness, Trudeau consistently campaigned on positive change, and so intentionally or not, he was able to exercise a kind of judo by using Harper's own political weight against him.)

Of course, the GOP establishment probably understands this paradigm with or without the Canadian example to draw from, and therefore sees a Trump victory in the primaries for the political trainwreck it is sure to be.

Monday, December 7, 2015

More guns or fewer guns for a safer America? Don't bet on either.

There has been much talk of arming more people with guns to avoid a repeat of the recent shootings in San Bernardino.

In one case, Ulster County, NY Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum is advising licensed gun owners in his community to "pack heat" to overcome the Islamic scourge when it inevitably begins opening fire in the all-too-near-and-terrifying future.

Similarly, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. (yes, son of that Jerry Falwell Sr.), amazingly advised students to 'carry guns' and 'end those Muslims' to much cheering and applause at a recent convocation ceremony. (He later backpedalled, saying he only meant the extremist Muslims. Of course!)

The above are but two very recent examples, but they are in communion with the overall gun nut myth that the more guns are in a community, the safer its residents will be. This argument is used to shoot down the central article of faith of the gun control lobby (pun intended), which is that fewer guns in a community will make its residents safer.

As religions go, both sides of the issue have a blind faith in the gun, in and of itself, either as the root of all evil (the gun control lobby) or as that which will deliver us from it (the anti-gun control lobby). Perhaps it is in reducing a complicated issue (violent crime) to the mere presence or absence of guns where both sides are misguided.

These recent comments by the sheriff and the university president had me reading up on gun violence in the United States, and in doing so I came across some U.S. Census Bureau statistics in a Wikipedia article.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I copied and pasted the figures into a spreadsheet, applied some data filters, and was then able to rank each state in descending order according to their respective rates of gun murders per 100,000 inhabitants, and after applying some color formatting in each column to provide some visual context, was able to see some correlations. (A pdf version, as well as the original .ods file, created with LibreOffice Calc, is freely available here.)

I won't bore you (or myself) here with a breakdown of the numbers - just look at the above-linked documents yourself if you are so inclined. Nevertheless, my own conclusions are as follows:

High population density is the real gun murder culprit

While the states with the highest level of gun murders generally have lower levels of gun ownership, they also generally have medium-to-high levels of population density. The District of Columbia comes out in first place with the highest population density (10298 people per square mile), as well as the highest overall murder rate (21.8 per 100,000 inhabitants) and the highest gun murder rate (16.5 per 100,000 inhabitants). Only two out of the states with the highest gun murder rate (Arkansas and New Mexico) have low population densities, and they are both near the bottom of the rankings for "high" rates of gun murders.

High gun ownership levels may reduce gun deaths only when combined with low population density

Conversely, while those on the bottom third of the list, with the lowest rates of gun murders, generally tend to be states with high levels of gun ownership, almost without exception they are also places of low population density.

While this doesn't outright disqualify the pro-gun argument that "an armed society is a polite society", the waters are certainly a little muddier than NRA zealot Ted Nugent and others of his ilk would have you believe.

The rural/urban divide

I'm no expert, but it seems reasonable to assume that rural people have a different relationship with guns than their cousins in the city, given that folks in the country are more likely to be hunters, and that when city-dwellers pack heat it's more for self-defence than sportsmanship. (I'm totally generalizing here, but that's just my own gut feeling.)

And so the overarching conclusion I draw from all of the above is that reducing gun murders in the U.S. (or anywhere) has little to do with levels of gun ownership or regulation so much as it does population density and whatever other socioeconomic factors not accounted for here. Perhaps these other factors are intimidating (and politically-risky) for politicians to confront head-on, which is why it's safer to arbitrarily boil it all down to either handing someone a gun or taking it away.

____


On a tangential note, it's all well and good to arm more people in response to terror attacks, but this logic doesn't take into account the fact that there's a difference between being trained in the safe handling of a gun versus knowing how to effectively shoot an assailant without endangering innocent bystanders and triggering an even bigger bloodbath. For this reason, I think the above calls for more armed citizens are irresponsible and lacking in foresight, not to mention insulting to police and the specialized training they receive.

I could be wrong.

Friday, December 4, 2015

One Week with Solaris 10, Part 3: Post-Mortem

Last things first...

As of this writing I have just gone 'back to the future', as it were, and am now running Oracle Solaris 11.3, the latest commercial UNIX offering on the market as far as x86 processors go. There is much about Solaris 11.3 that is way over my head, and a good part of it I simply won't be using. (All that 'cloud server' stuff doesn't concern me, as I'm looking to take it for a spin as a general purpose productivity desktop. As of right now I have LibreOffice, Emacs, GIMP, Scribus and vlc installed, and will try to push the envelope with getting Audacity, Blender and Inkscape installed, even if it means building from source.)


Good to Go: Oracle Solaris 11.3 with the 
sfe.opencsw.org build of LibreOffice installed.

All of the above, including downloading the 11.3 .iso, was done via my neighborhood Starbucks' wifi signal. (This was my way of making them serve a penance in case the CBC story about their supposed "greenwashing" is true. Tee-hee!)

Because LibreOffice is Solaris 11.x's 'missing link', you can follow these steps to get it installed from www.sfe.opencsw.org:

# pfexec pkg set-publisher -G '*' -g http://sfe.opencsw.org/localhosts11 localhosts11

# pfexec pkg install -v libreoffice4-desktop-int

Oh, right...Solaris 10

While this Solaris 11.3 install has gone swimmingly, particularly seeing as it now has 90% of the applications I normally need or want, I look back on my week with Solaris 10 with fondness for the retro-UNIX experience it afforded, as well as a palpable sense of relief at being able to move forward with using my laptop for something other than figuring out how to do stuff. My extensive (for me) experience with OpenIndiana (151a9 as well as Hipster) leaves me in a very good position to charge ahead with Solaris 11.3, as so much of it is the same. (Solaris and OI are both SunOS 5.11-based.)

The only thing preventing Solaris 10 from staying on my laptop any longer than it did was simply the differential between the seemingly Byzantine art of installing the programs I need to be truly productive and the level patience demanded (of me) to see it through. (Also, I never did figure out how to enable wireless networking, which was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.) As far as I can tell, Solaris 10 comes with no package management system out-of-the box. Installing Firefox 38.2.1 from www.unixpackages.com, for example, involves following a process of uninstalling the old Firefox and then unpacking and installing the new one. While that process is probably no sweat for a seasoned system administrator, it is heart-pounding for an OS-dabbling shmuck like me. Despite successfully upgrading Firefox, in the process I also shot Thunderbird out of the sky, and was unable to bring it back.

Otherwise, Solaris 10 was a joy to use and get to know, and after a few days I felt far more comfortable with it than I would have expected. Before long, the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) felt like my 'new normal'. And compared to Solaris 11.3, overall it was fast. Like, speeding ticket fast. (Solaris 11.3 takes a long time to boot on this machine - a ThinkPad T61p - and Solaris 11.2 wouldn't even completely load. Perhaps in the latter case there was a problem with the iso?)

A collateral benefit from trying to figure out Solaris 10 is that I also learned a thing or two about getting things done on SunOS 5.11 systems (be they illumos- or Oracle-based), and I'm sure there's sundry other little things I've brought back across the chasm that escape me at the moment.

The new road ahead

And so I'll try living with Solaris 11.3 for awhile and learn as much as I can. As it stands right now, it is already serving my productivity needs, and so my goal will be to make it as much of a multimedia desktop as possible (hello, Audacity and Blender).

In the longer term, however, I can't bring myself to abide by Oracle's proprietary licensing conditions, which are geared towards larger organizations who would benefit from paying for the support and upgrades that Oracle offers. At the end of the day, I'm a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) kinda guy, and so this ongoing foray into the proprietary realm makes me feel a strong twinge of guilt at contravening my ideals.

(I don't fault Oracle for their licensing choices - they exist to make money as they see fit. On the other hand, bringing Solaris back into the proprietary fold after having been open-sourced under Sun's stewardship, as well as killing the OpenSolaris project, has probably come at some cost to its community of users. As for myself, it has taken a number of years for me to be able to say 'Oracle' without wanting to spit. Former Sun engineers, such as Bryan Cantrill, go to much further lengths to express their disdain. As for the official Solaris brand, Oracle has made a legion of detractors out of those who were once passionate ambassadors, people who are now putting their all into the illumos project.)

Nevertheless, my objective is to be able to get more involved in the OpenIndiana/illumos community, particularly by submitting informed bug reports to OI's Hipster test branch, as well as assisting in editing and writing documentation if they have enough faith in my editorial skills. And so given that OpenIndiana aims to closely mirror the Solaris 11.x experience while also improving on it, having a good dose of direct interaction with Solaris 11.3 can only serve me well in my endeavors with OpenIndiana.

OpenSolaris is dead. Long live illumos, long live OpenIndiana.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Politically-biased headlines reinforce Islamophobia, encourage hate crimes

The following is a letter to the editor of the New York Post submitted on December 3, 2015.


_____


Dear Editor,

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar once said that "knowledge is a burden if it robs you of innocence." In light of your choice of headline ("MUSLIM KILLERS") in reference to yesterday's tragic mass shooting in San Bernardino, I would like to pass on some items of knowledge that may come at the expense of your innocence.

First, Muslims comprise 2.77 million of your fellow Americans. If citizenship in your country means anything, then they are to be considered Americans, full stop. They do not deserve to be singled out for their religion by you nor anyone else.

Second, it is well-known that anti-Muslim hate crimes tend to spike after a terror event, involving everything from threatening phone calls and graffiti to incidents of violence or even murder.

Third, your publication has an impact on its readers, and can play a part in shaping their worldview, particularly at times of heightened emotion, such as the immediate aftermath of a terror attack. As a corollary, your choice of front page headline simplifies your coverage of a given lead story, often reducing it to a three- or four-syllable shorthand of the whole situation. "MUSLIM KILLERS", for example.

Fourth, as far as your headlines are concerned, the only time a shooter's religion comes into play is when that religion happens to be Islam. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't ever recall seeing one of your headlines read "JEW KILLERS" or "CHRISTIAN KILLERS".)

Fifth, terrorism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal." What Merriam-Webster doesn't mention is that non-Muslims who engage in mass shootings on U.S. soil are almost never referred to as "terrorists", or at least not as far as your headlines are concerned. (As a recent example, your headline referred to Robert Lewis Dear simply as a "gunman" after he shot three people at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado, presumably to frighten or intimidate people on the political issue of abortion. You could have referred to him as a "terrorist", or even a "CHRISTIAN KILLER", but that could possibly incite hate crimes, or even violence, against Christians, especially those of a social conservative bent.)

Sixth, the New York Post has a demonstrated political bias, and it could be said that your choice of headlines, particularly for lead stories, serves to further the goal of legitimizing that bias.

Seventh, by singling out yesterday's shooters for their religion, you reinforce certain unfair and unfounded stereotypes of approximately 2.77 million of your fellow Americans. And so when someone gets it into their head to persecute their Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religion, your December 3 headline does nothing to stand in their way, and may even serve as encouragement.

Eighth, I'm not saying your careless headline incites violence, or is the moral equivalent of direct violence or some form of "soft terrorism", but I would say it is certainly politically motivated. You should be concerned about the possibility of your simplistic and ungraceful headline forming part of a 'chorus of approval' for those who would take their Islamophobia to the next level.

If you agree with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword", then perhaps you should be much more careful with how you handle your quill, otherwise you could hurt up to 2.77 million innocent people with it.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

Monday, November 30, 2015

One Week with Solaris 10, Part 2

Opening remarks and overdue meta data

It is now Day 4 with this Solaris 10 installation, and I haven't gone running to the proverbial hills.

Yet.

Since my previous, post, I realized that I neglected to provide any sort of personal frame of reference to explain the perspective from which this is being written. Although I am well into my second (or third?) decade as a UNIX fanboy, and while I may come across as a computer scientist next to the average point-and-click Windows or Mac user, I am by no means a technical UNIX user. I can find my way around most any UNIX system, and I know just enough about it to sound like an expert to those who haven't the faintest idea what the hell I'm talking about. But while I'm proficient enough to use it for my own productivity purposes, I'm not the person to run your IT infrastructure. Not even close!

And so this series on Solaris 10 isn't meant to reflect any sort of expertise on my part, but rather my enthusiasm and joy at learning and exploring new-to-me things about UNIX itself, and hopefully to provide direction to other clods like me by way of example. (And if you feel the need to correct me or provide a better way to do anything please let me know via the contact form to the right. I will take it in what I'll assume is the constructive spirit in which it was intended.)

Housekeeping

Before I go too much further, I should pass along a tip for those who are also thinking of installing this operating system. As with anything UNIX, probably the first thing you want to do with a fresh install is set yourself up as a user and then assign root privileges. (Most UNIX systems I've come across let you accomplish this as part of the initial installation procedures, including Solaris 11 and its open source cousins. Not so for 10.)

So before you do anything else, the first order of business should be setting up a new user, as follows, using my own credentials as an example:

#  useradd -d /export/home/jed -m -s /bin/ksh -c "James Deagle" jed

Once you've created a password with the passwd command, you can now assign root privileges:

# usermod -P "Primary Administrator" jed

I found the above somewhere on the web quite a while ago during a previous Solaris 10 installation. I had scribbled it down in a notebook without documenting where I found it. All that to say that the above is courtesy of another person's knowledge, and as someone who believes in always giving credit where it's due, it kills me that I'm unable to provide a hyperlink to the original source. (To paraphrase Magnolia, I may be done with journalism, but journalism isn't done with me.)

Some thoughts on CDE

All in all, I feel myself warming up to the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) to the point where I could live with it as my 'production environment', rather than it being just the fascinating occasional toy that it has been up until now. (I'm still banging my forehead on some of its quirks, but each time I do there is something new to learn, and each time that happens I realize that CDE is a very thought-out system, and that it is only my own unfamiliarity with it that makes it seem weird at first. Like many great things from within the UNIX realm, and like UNIX itself, it will not adjust to you - you have to adjust to it. Once you're down with that, powerful things can happen.)

At this point, I imagine a hypothetical reader asking why I haven't tried out CDE previously by installing it on a more up-to-date operating system. That would be a fair question, and in response I can tell you that I have already tried that route. Many times. I tried to build it from source on FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD as well as OpenIndiana, but it in every case it would throw up on itself before the build was complete. (I would happily install CDEbian if it were still active, or if I could at least find an installable iso.)

And so I have come to think of building the recently open-sourced CDE as being akin to a coffee mug I saw many years ago. One side of the mug read "Turn the mug to see how to keep an idiot busy." On the other side, it read "Turn the mug to see how to keep an idiot busy." I'm through feeling like an idiot, which is partially why I'm on this one-week journey with Solaris 10.

(I also have UnixWare 7.1.4 installed on an ancient Toshiba Satellite, but I don't count that because I haven't figured out how to configure the network yet, and so for now it is a mere toy. I may attempt to install that OS on this machine and see what happens, and so there may be a One Week with UnixWare 7.1.4 series in my near future if the current series doesn't chase away my entire readership in the meantime. In all seriousness, it may be a worthwhile venture, as the UnixWare implementation of CDE has a different enough feel to warrant comparison.)

God exists, He is merciful, and His name is Firefox 38.2.1

My next order of business was updating Firefox, as the one that comes out of the box with Solaris 10 is too outdated for any real fun on the web. And so I went to a website called Unix Packages and its special page for Mozilla software, including Firefox, Thunderbird and Sunbird. (Installation instructions are on that website, so I won't bore you with them here.)

While I now have Firefox 38.2.1 up and running, I have to go through a workaround to start it, which namely involves becoming root, invoking bash, temporarily adding the installed package's ./bin directory to the $PATH, and then executing Firefox's full path to bring it to life, as follows:

$ su
Password: _
# bash
# export PATH=$PATH:/opt/sfw/bin
# /opt/sfw/bin/firefox &

It would be nice to figure out how exactly to permanently add /opt/sfw/bin to the package path, but at this point I don't quite give enough of a shit to lose that much sleep over it. After all, this is only for a week, and I'm just overjoyed at having a version of Firefox that can run YouTube videos as smoothly as Linux Mint (which is saying a lot for good ol' Slowaris) and also allows me to use other websites (such as NoteFlight and Google Docs) that newer SunOS variants choke on due to a lack of Flash support.

In fact, given that the ads on YouTube don't flash like a slow-motion strobe light on this system like they do on Linux Mint, I'll go out on a limb and say that with the 38.2.1 build, Solaris 10 provides the best Firefox experience yet on any system I've used. Take that, Penguinistas!




The road ahead

Under Oracle's stewardship, Solaris 10 and 11 are both in a weird space as far as the two big Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) productivity suites are concerned. While OpenOffice began life as StarOffice at Sun Microsystems, and was thus very much a part of the Solaris ecosystem, it is now under the direction of Apache, and so perhaps for reasons of corporate vanity, Oracle does not provide OpenOffice either out-of-the-box or as part of its package repository. Ditto for LibreOffice. This leaves Solaris users to contend with porting and building either suites from source on their own, or trying to find a third-party binary. I am on that very same hunt myself, and will keep you posted.

An alternative is to try and get the NetBSD-led pkgsrc repository working, though I have my doubts, as I've been unsuccessful to date at doing the same on OpenIndiana. (Insert coffee mug anecdote here.)

Assuming they have a new enough version of Firefox installed, the desperate can resort to Google Docs for word processing, spreadsheets and slide presentations, though if doing so in any professional capacity, it would be best to advise recipients to open any of your documents in Google on their end to maintain the intended formatting. (No offense to Google, as Google Docs works just fine on its own terms. Any criticism here is strictly regarding how a Google document's formatting becomes skewed when opened in a Microsoft product. In an ideal world, life wouldn't be dictated by any one vendor.)

This may be unworkable in just about any professional setting, particularly in a government workplace, where there very likely is a requirement for all work-related documents to be composed, edited, saved and tracked within the in-house ecosystem. And because your choice of workplace operating system and productivity suite is dictated by colleagues whose job involves accepting bribes of food, alcohol and other gifts by vendors, rather than your knowledgeable and hardworking IT professionals, you'll be stuck with Microsoft Windows and Office until you die. And so will your children. And their children's children.

(Psst, Google: You should focus some effort on working with organizations to allow versions or usage of Google Docs that complies with their respective internal IT policies. Perhaps this could entail a client-side app that would provide adequate encryption and internal system interopability?)

The other order of business is to enable wireless networking, but I'm getting a sinking feeling that the wireless driver this laptop needs (iwn0) may be missing from the current installation. If I'm not able to resolve that issue, then this will indeed be just a one-week experiment, though it will be with a heavy heart and fond remembrance I that install something else over top of this.

But don't worry, OpenIndiana. A candle burns on my window sill in anticipation of your return.

Friday, November 27, 2015

One week with Solaris 10

For quite some time I've had a largely-unconsumated love for Solaris 10. The reasons for this are many, though for the most part it comes down to a sense of awe at the software and hardware engineering legacy of the late Sun Microsystems, a more basic urge to kick the tires on a corporate-driven UNIX (as opposed to the sundry open source "Unix-like" systems that I've been using for years), as well as an inexplicable crush on CDE, the so-ugly-it's-beautiful desktop GUI.

(The last reason is probably the most salient, as I've had more than my share of experience with OpenSolaris and OpenIndiana, which are indeed as SunOS as any of the "official" versions of Solaris, but with the Gnome desktop and bash as the default shell, these systems have always seemed - to me, anyway - like UNIX trying to woo the Linux crowd. Solaris with Red Hat Enterprise Linux window dressing, if you will. Having said that, OpenIndiana rocks my world, and is always the port of call to which I return after bouts of compulsive distro-hopping.)

Unfortunately, any time I ever installed it, it was never long before I bailed and installed something else over top of it. Why?

My best answer is that despite my self-proclaimed "catholic taste" in UNIX systems, I've become accustomed to the bells and whistles of the fancier systems, be it the SunOS 5.11 strains of Solaris, or even Linux Mint, which despite some unstable behavior (on my laptop, at least), puts up zero resistance for those who want to stop dicking around and simply get stuff done and have some fun afterwards.

And so whenever I had booted up a fresh Solaris 10 installation, I was left somewhat cold by a system I had yet to fully comprehend. (How do I install packages on this thing? How do I assign root privileges to myself? How do I enable wireless networking?) These brief forays into the world of Solaris 10 consisted of a few minutes of adoring the retro utilitarianism of CDE, and then retreating to whatever other OS had my confidence at the time.





A screenshot taken with the xwd tool while writing this post 
in my current Solaris 10 installation.


Particularly over the past few months, however, I've had this nagging feeling that I jumped ship prematurely, and have never given myself a chance to simply experience Solaris 10 for any extended period of time, and at least learn a thing or two about it and CDE.

With that in mind, I am commiting myself to keeping this current Solaris 10 installation for at least one week (starting today), and exercise a bit more patience in working through whatever roadblocks crop up. As the week progresses, I will pursue the following goals:

  • intalling productivity software (such as OpenOffice or LibreOffice, Scribus, Inkscape, etc.),

  • installing multimedia software (such as Audacity, Blender, vlc, etc.), and

  • enabling wireless networking. (This is nothing short of a moral imperative. My neighborhood Starbucks is chockablock with Apple-laden hipsters and yoga moms, and so I have this demented urge to boot up CDE in all of its unsightly glory on my refurbished ThinkPad T61p for all to see within such a painfully-trendy mileu. In these parts I'm sure such an act contravenes some local bylaw. This is Kanata, after all.)

Along the way, as I try to resolve any problems, I'll report my findings here, thus guaranteeing no date to the prom as far as my readership (all three of you!) is concerned.

*    *    *

My one caveat is that I reserve the right to boot up a Linux Mint live DVD for certain tasks that Solaris 10 simply isn't up to (yet) on this machine, such as word processing, watching YouTube videos with reasonable smoothness, or creating/handling multimedia files. As the week (or beyond) progresses, I'll work towards being able to do more (or all) of these things within Solaris 10.

In fairness, Solaris 10 reflects the needs of the late 1990's and early 2000's system administrator, rather than the desktop user here in 2015, and so while I'd love to get this system to a point where I can use it instead of newer, more Linux-like alternatives, for the sake of my one-week experiment I will ease up on my expectations and remember to experience (and appreciate) it on its own terms.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My son, the teacher

Lately I've been playing a John Lennon compilation CD in the car in order to distract my four-year-old son from his Hotel California fixation. (Yes, back in the summer I scratched my once-a-year Eagles itch only to inadvertently create a pint-sized Don Henleyite. If I hear Hotel California one more time, I'll be like a wild animal caught in some steel trap, and chew off my leg to get myself free.)

In any case, I had been curious to see if any Lennon tunes would catch his fancy, and lo and behold, somewhere in the middle of Instant Kharma, he blurted out: "Daddy. I want the people song."

"The people song?"

"Yes."

I had to think for a moment, but then it occurred to me which one he must have had in mind, so I cued up Imagine. At the opening piano notes, however, his response was to indignantly shout "No! I said the people song!"

"But this one goes 'Imagine all the people...'"

"That's not the people song!"

At this point I committed the cardinal sin of parenthood, which is to let a four-year-old get under your skin. "Alright," I said, duly flummoxed, "how does the people song go?" And then, in a very recognizable melody, he sang:

"All we are saying...is give people chance."




At the dinner table that night I felt the need to correct what I considered his misunderstanding of the lyrics. "That song isn't saying give people chance, but give peace a chance. Do you know what 'peace' means?"

He shook his head no.

I awkwardly tried to define it for him, but with mixed results. "It's sort of like 'peace and quiet', but not really." I then referenced the idea of war, and peace being its opposite, but stopped short of talking about people killing each other in the name of geopolitics. Something just felt wrong about what I was doing, and I couldn't put my finger on it, so I simply let it go.

Later in the evening, however, I brooded over this parental faltering, and my inability to put such a simple song into the right context for my son, and then I realized I had been looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope, as it were. Instead of focusing on the obvious way in which my son got it wrong, I considered the ways in which he may have gotten it right, grammar notwithstanding.

Give people (a) chance...a chance to what, exactly?

-A chance to be themselves, or feel like they're in harmony with who they really are?

-A chance to live life on as much of an equal footing with their peers as society can allow?

-A chance to move past their own mistakes to some sort of redemption, or even a chance to freely make mistakes in the first place and then learn from them?

-A chance to give and receive love?

-A chance to exist from day-to-day without experiencing violence or exploitation?

-A chance to simply...live?

As I mulled all of this over, I realized that although my son's rendition may not have been exactly what the words were saying, it may have zeroed in on exactly what the words mean. Furthermore, he triggered a thought process that made me examine the concept of peace through the lens of innocently misheard lyrics, thus helping me arrive at a more articulate and nuanced understanding. After all, what is peace if not the act of giving people (individually or collectively) a chance of any kind?

Needless to say, I no longer correct him on this one.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sun columnist ignores Harper's Canada-bashing

The following is a letter to the editors of the Ottawa Sun and Toronto Sun, as submitted.

_____


Anthony Furey thinks it's a “hazing ritual” for left-leaning columnists to speak ill of Canada in foreign publications (Stop smack-talking my country, Sept. 20), but he conveniently ignores Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own history of bashing this nation, whether for foreign or domestic audiences.

As Harper himself said in a June 1997 speech to the U.S.-based Council for National Policy at a gathering in Montreal: “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” While these remarks may have been in jest, they betray the same contempt for this country that led him to co-author a letter calling for a firewall to separate Alberta from the rest of Canada.

Given that no such firewall separates Sun Media from the Conservative Party of Canada, it is undertandable that Furey would rather shortchange his readers by employing a selective memory than cross his partisan puppet masters.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Ontario

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Niqab opposition: so much manufactured outrage

The following is an letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, as submitted on September 19, 2015.

_____


The fervor to keep Muslim women from wearing niqabs during public ceremonies, as echoed by columnist Mark Milke (Government right to challenge niqab ruling), is just so much manufactured outrage, and is but the latest front in a longstanding battle to force darker-skinned people to surrender their cultural identity by increments. The first increment, of course, is the attire most identified with one's religious or cultural background.

In the late 1980s, the battle centered on the right of a Sikh Mountie to wear a turban in lieu of the traditional Stetson while in uniform. If the anti-turban contingent had won the day, it likely would have opened another avenue of debate over what a Sikh Mountie should do with his long hair if not put it up in a turban. Pony tail? Perm? Cut it off? (Like I said: increments.)

In some quarters the demand for assimilation extended to other realms. As I recall of heated conversations at the time, some "old-stock Canadians" fumed that Sikh war veterans should "take the damn thing off" before entering a Legion. I also heard others say that they would refuse to get on an OC Transpo bus if the driver was wearing a turban.

More recently, the anti-turban sentiment has included unsuccessful efforts to have it banned from soccer fields.

And then earlier this year, Rania El-Alloul was banned by a Quebec judge from wearing her hijab in court because he simply didn't think it was "appropriate".

Niqab opponents such as Milke claim that the issue is of one of openness as well as opposition to a perceived "anti-woman" cultural practice. The way I see it, given the litany of attempts to get minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs to remove their distinctive head-coverings for a series of continuously shifting rationales, the current 'openness' craze is simply a faux concern pulled out of a hat for the sake of a general dislike of those cultures.

It would be nice if there was a little more 'openness' about the real motivation behind the petty yet persistent drive to force our brown-skinned neighbors head-first through the meat grinder of assimilation.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Ontario

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Niqab ban is unreasonable non-accommodation

The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, as submitted on September 16, 2015.

_____


The central assumption of the government's case against Zunera Ishaq is that by wearing the niqab during her citizenship oath, she is concealing her identity, which somehow compromises the integrity of the exercise. The underlying message here is not that the niqab may actually comprise part of a Muslim woman's identity as much as any facial feature, but that the Islamic faith, by its very nature, cannot be trusted if it involves hiding one's identity. From there it would follow that Islam is incompatible with Canadian citizenship.

Nowhere in this logic is there room for the possibility that Ishaq is being open about who she is as a woman of faith by wearing the niqab during her ceremony. In a world where people have been persecuted or even killed for their religious identity, and for the sake of a demographic that is often demonized for the sins of its most extreme brethren, I'd like to think Canadians (including our Prime Minister) have enough emotional intelligence not to mistake the niqab for disloyalty or dishonor by way of supposed identity concealment.

This situation is disturbing, as it seems our government is asking women of a particular faith to choose between their religion and their country where by default others are asked no such thing. This is a case of unreasonable non-accommodation, and to me reveals a very small vision of Canada.

But with the news that the government plans to fight the recent Appeals Court decision at the Supreme Court, it would appear that this boorish exercise in anti-Muslim social engineering will continue for the foreseeable future.

I miss my country.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Ontario

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Senate reform made easy

The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen in response to its editorial,  Mulcair's Senate 'strategy' lacking, as submitted.

_____


Under the Harper government, many pieces of Federal legislation have been struck down by the Supreme Court, having been deemed unconstitutional. If our Conservative-dominated Senate had been doing its job, then these errant bills wouldn't have been allowed out the door without drastic changes, if at all.

But as the Mike Duffy affair has shown, the current Senate intelligentsia views itself as the Prime Ministerial sock puppet, as evidenced by Senator Carolyn Olsen-Stewart's cringeworthy email to Nigel Wright as the scandal was still unfolding, in which she assured him that she's “always ready to do exactly what is asked.”

Under no circumstances should a sitting senator ever feel obliged to swear an oath of fealty to a sitting Prime Minister's Chief of Staff.

Given Harper's well-known penchant for keeping cabinet members of his own House leashed and muzzled at all times, and also given that our first-past-the-post electoral system is democracy of the 'kinda/sorta' variety, it is critical that we have an Upper House with a fiery streak of independence and an unbending commitment to 'getting it right' on behalf of Canadians. The Senate should be guarding the constitutionality of our government like a rabid pit bull, and not be falling into dereliction of duty by allowing itself to be the Lower House's frisky little lap dog.

And so if we're looking to pick the low-hanging fruit first, perhaps an initial round of Senate reform should consist of Upper House members simply doing their job adequately and professionally, rather than Supreme Court justices having to do it for them.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Ontario

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11

What always comes to mind when I think about September 11, 2001 is the overpowering sense of disorientation I felt. Like many other office denizen, I experienced the events of that day via the Internet, particularly through the low- to medium-resolution video streams offered by the CNN and Washington Post websites at the time. (I seem to remember the Post stream being smoother, perhaps due to lower bandwidth congestion.)

What started out as a minor (but manageable) startle at the initial footage of what at first looked like a much smaller aircraft hitting one of the twin towers gave way to genuine shock when the other tower was hit. What originally seemed (to me) like an unfortunate and small-scale accident was now undeniably a coordinated effort, particularly as we learned about the Pentagon being hit and what was originally reported as a commercial airliner being shot down in Pennsylvania by fighter jets.

The peak of my anxiety came while I was on the phone with a friend who had the day off. On my end, the whole office was abuzz with the unbelievable tragedy unfolding on multiple fronts, which meant the company's business was effectively ground to a halt. From somewhere in the commotion all around me in the cubicle village, I heard a voice say that one of the towers had collapsed. (Say what?) Before I had a chance to fully process that information, I heard my friend's wife in the room at the other end of the phone conversation say that it was just announced on TV that the other tower had now collapsed, too.

At this precise moment I had the feeling of falling down a bottomless well as the historical enormity of the day's events settled in. I couldn't give words to what was happening inside of me at the time, other than to say I was 'freaked out', but with the luxury of hindsight I can now say it was as if the glue holding my sense of the world together was suddenly dissolving, allowing that mental structure to break apart and fall away.

I can't remember how the phone conversation ended, but not long after some local news came over someone's desktop radio that a suspicious package had been found behind Parliament Hill here in Ottawa, and that a bomb squad was already on the scene. At that point the employer told us all to take the rest of the day off.

I drove home in a haze of anger and fear, as well as a frustrating sense of not knowing which way was up in a world I thought I knew.

______


All these years later, the uncertainty about the world I came to feel on 9/11 has long been shunted aside by a very cynical uncertainty about what actually transpired on that day. While I'm loathe to buy into conspiracy theories, the fact that the official story has always seemed like one of the less likely explanations only bolsters the 9/11 Was an Inside Job school of thought. And for all the dubious rhetoric at the time about the attacks having been provoked by Western rights and freedoms, it is now painfully obvious that the establishment powers never held those same rights and freedoms in high regard either.

Was it really terrorists with a hatred for America (and all it represents) who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks? For the sake of argument, let's say “yes” unconditionally. That understanding is, in and of itself, a tragedy beyond measure, if that's how it really went down. Just as troubling, however, is how the events of that day served to break the seal, as it were, on darker, more fascistic instincts in a part of the world that had long prided itself on being the official representative of humanity's best behavior.

We're now in a world where torture and undue mass surveillance are not only up for debate but largely accepted as a given by many as the price we pay for living in an Age of Terror. Forget that far fewer people per year are killed by terrorism than, say, automobiles. Or spoiled cheese. It's not that we're really that much more threatened by terrorism than we ever were, but that we live in a time where fear of terror (however remote) is the de rigeur state of mind.

On the other hand, the countless mass shootings that occur with sickening frequency in the U.S. pose much more of a “clear and present danger” to public safety, and yet the establishment mindset is that these admittedly unfortunate events should not serve to curtail gun ownership rights one iota. But then these shooters are never called “terrorists” by the authorities – unless they happen to be Muslims. (In this New McCarthyism, “terrorism” and “Islam” have replaced “communism” as the kneejerk scare words for the unthinking.)

Taking all of the above into consideration, I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to feel whenever another 9/11 anniversary rolls around. What I do know, however, is that the anger, fear and disorientation I felt that day as I drove home has never been the kind of emotional nor intellectual foundation upon which our society should rest, either in general or in how we respond to unexpected attacks.

I'd like to think we're better than that, but I'm often left with the feeling that for too many of my fellow citizens, anger, fear and disorientation constitute a preferred societal frame of reference, rather than a passing malaise.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Black-on-black violence is even more reason to say #BlackLivesMatter

I've been following the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter, and any time I've entered the fray I've taken my share of licks from those who mistakenly see that movement as anti-white and anti-police. As I've said many times (on Twitter as well as the Craigslist forums), when black lives matter, so do the rest.

While the civil rights movement of the 1960's was in response to the institutional oppression of blacks, any good that resulted from those struggles applied to all races. The upshot of the movement was that you, whoever you happen to be, are a human being, not a skin color. The civil rights movement was only ostensibly about blacks because they happened to  be bearing the brunt of establishment intolerance to racial minorities - I don't believe any black at the time would have wanted resulting civil rights laws to exclude anybody. They, along with the whites and other non-blacks who locked arms with them, were paving the way for all races.

This was a time of necessary political disruption, and it appears that time has come back around.

One of the common online responses to #BlackLivesMatter is for non-sympathizers to say "all lives matter, not just black ones". While such a sentiment is true in one sense, it is cited only in response to "black lives matter", as if the intent of the former is to neutralize the latter. And in trying to neutralize the latter, the #AllLivesMatter crowd is denying the pain and anger that comes with being from a demographic with a history of oppression on this continent, and who feel at least some of their racial brethren are being targeted for state violence here and now.

And so in trying to squelch black voices crying out for equality (not to mention equal protection under the law), the "all lives matter" crowd is practicing racism, albeit a racism cloaked in a pleasant- and uplifting-sounding meme.

Yes, *all* lives matter, but some lives are characterized by far greater inequality than others. To just chirp "all lives matter" as a way to ignore social injustice is to aid and abet that injustice in a very Orwellian way: saying one thing (black lives don't really matter) by couching it in contradicting terminology (all lives matter).

*    *    *

On a smaller scale, there are those who will cherry-pick individual cases of black-on-black violence, and add a comment like "I guess black lives don't matter to them". They are implying that the existence of black-on-black violence should somehow invalidate (and therefore erase) the reality of white-on-black state violence.

Not only does black-on-black violence not invalidate the mission of the BlackLivesMatter movement, it merits even greater urgency for the cause. While conservatives bristle at such a concept, there is a direct relationship between violent crime and social and economic inequality. This has never been a secret, and yet our political establishment carries on as if this weren't the case.

By ignoring the effects of inequality on violent crime rates, and to compound centuries of black inequality by further reducing access to the quality education and healthcare that would reduce violent crime among blacks, is to say unequivocably: "Black lives don't matter."

While the BlackLivesMatter movement is officially in direct response to excessive police violence against black youth, it is simply disingenuous and absurd for whites to use incidents of black-on-black violence as an all-purpose 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, either in instances of inappropriate police violence or in political disregard for socioeconomic inequality.

Taking all of the above into consideration, let's call the reactionary #AllLivesMatter meme for what it is: class warfare from above.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Where respectful and sane conversation goes to die

Lately I've been engaging in a brutal form of masochism by way of participating in the 'comments' sections of Breitbart.com stories. Below is just a sampling of the 'logic' that pervades those forums, from the discussion on Shooting in Lafayette, Lousiana Theater Leaves 2 Victims and Gunman Dead:





You forget you are living in Obama's America.... Keep your family safe.
Go prepared...




Exactly! There was absolutely no gun violence prior to Obama taking office, and the minute he leaves the entire country will go back to a state of peace, harmony and non-violence.
 




You aren't a free thinker. Exactly the opposite. The same kind of opposite as Jenner, the mentally ill kind.






Care to explain why you think this is so? Are you saying that gun violence is to be blamed on Obama?
If you're going to call someone 'mentally ill', at least have something with which to substantiate the claim.






Certainly, gun violence and all violence in America is Obamas fault. And yours, if you voted the pushead into office. The slaughter of babies body parts for billions of dollars of profit is his and your fault. You are awash in baby blood and guts. You ask if I care to explain to you why you're Batshit crazy and the answer is NO. You're batshit crazy .

Needless to say, after a while just trying to have a respectful and sane conversation in these forums is like throwing pebbles into the fog; all you can do is watch them disappear into the murk of irrationality.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Trump support: angry populism as therapeutic entertainment?

With the news a few days ago that NASCAR is cutting ties with Donald Trump, and therefore will not have the Trump National Doral Miami resort host its end-of-season awards ceremony, I would hope for their own sake that supporters of the Republican Party are realizing that it takes more than expressions of populist anger to connect with otherwise undecided voters.

Granted, Trump's stone age rhetoric regarding illegal immigrants plays well with the "Guns n' God" rump of the GOP. A cursory read of the comments sections of Breitbart.com or WND.com, for example, reveal an angry horde of Archie Bunkers prostrating themselves before The Donald as if He is Lord and Savior of the Republican Party's future. This wave of support is based not on any sound policies but merely a perceived sense of Donald Christ "telling it like it is". The level of thought in said forums seems to be that they favor Trump because they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore!

Problem is, Trump has offered very little in the way of a platform, other than calling out Mexican "rapists" and recommending a wall being built along the U.S./Mexican border. A June 16 New York Times article provided a rundown of all the ways in which Trump is either vague or self-contradicting. I guess for His followers, ramped-up nativism is enough, and from the rabid comments posted in the above-noted forums, they will hear no arguments to the contrary.

All this makes me wonder why some people become engaged with politics or throw their support so fervently behind a given candidate on such grounds.

Not that it's really any of my business, but are they politically active (either directly or via online commentary) out of a sincere desire to improve life for their children, their community and the nation in general, or is it a form of therapeutic entertainment in which they get to gnash their teeth in the name of hating liberals? How much depth can there be to one's loyalty to a party or candidate if it is predicated on the extent to which it allows them to loosen the release valve on their anger?

To satisfy my own curiosity, I waded into some of the discussions on Breitbart.com with what I thought were some reasonable questions - all it did was unleash a steady tide of vitriol masking itself as 'patriotism', whatever that word actually means. (I would have given the WND.com forums my two cents if I hadn't gotten myself banned last week, which I think was due to my suggestion that a collateral blessing of the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage was that God could legally wed His boyfriend in any state He chooses. Apparently the moderators couldn't see through the surface layer of anti-comedy to the core of non-sacriligious logic within.)

What Trump is tapping into is a simple desire for a culture war (against Mexicans, liberals, gays, etc.), as opposed to any notion of improving the economy, the overall quality of life, and the institution of democracy itself.

Surely most GOP supporters realize that an attention-seeking blowhard like Trump will not lead their party to the White House. Similar to a polarizing element like the Tea Party, Trump may inspire admiration among the Republican's hardened rightward crust but will do nothing but further marginalize a party already seen as outmoded and irrelevant to a younger generation.

Whether Trump and his supporters like it or not, there is a new America out there, and if they insist on living in some mythical version of the old one, they'll consign themselves to sitting out the next term of office.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kumbaya, without apologies

The song was originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need but, more recently, it is also cited or alluded to in satirical or cynical ways that suggest false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature.
-Kumbaya article, Wikipedia

I've already talked about the 'thought-terminating cliché' in a recent post, so reintroducing it here so soon makes me feel like some college freshman who can't help but impose his or her newfound highfalutin lingo from Sociology 101 on the family at Thanksgiving dinner, as if their kin were provincial simpletons in sorry need of enlightenment. Perhaps the family finds it all amusing in an endearing sort of way, even if it is a little much. After all, by degrees the child's well-intentioned desire to change the world will give way to a stoic sense of fulfillment in simply minding the shop.

However, the pejorative use of the word 'Kumbaya', which has become the default usage, is something that has been under my skin for some time precisely because it is now word-as-weapon, to be used in shooting down discussions that dare to veer into progressive territory, thus eliminating a solution rooted in hope and good will from the conversation. "Oh, let's all just join hands and have a 'Kumbaya' moment," as they say. In our culture there is no real comeback to such a statement because it emanates from deep within the rigid firmament of North American thought, and thus any attempt at a retort would seem like decadent whimsy at best. If someone cuts you off in mid-sentence with "Don't get all Kumbaya on us," the tendency is to shut down, particularly if this occurs during a group conversation.

Thought-terminating cliché.

Conversational bullying.

Call it what you will.

My own sense of why the 'Kumbaya' paradigm exists in this part of the world is that the United States as well as Canada both forged their respective identities during a time of massive land expansion and economy-growing. We each had our nations to build and populate, and so any activity or worldview running counter to that imperative would have seemed suspect or even treasonous.

And so, although most of us no longer work in the very  labor-intensive industries that built North America, I think the lingering aroma of the frontier mentality still permeates our thinking, even if we're not consciously aware of it. The idea of constant growth for its own sake is orthodoxy to us, even though constant growth tends to be a toxic phenomenon in any natural system. To offer this suggestion in the U.S., for example, would be considered by many as evidence that you somehow "hate America", as if generating private profits is the only reason America exists, full stop. (There is more to America than profits, isn't there?)

In these parts politicians are expected to exhalt 'public-private partnerships' (P3s) for major projects, though in many cases even marginal private involvement can reduce or eradicate the level of accountability demanded of the participating government body. And even though the value of P3s is much more dubious than proponents would have you believe, it is important for our politicians to be seen as beckoning the business sector into the public house like a harlot in the doorway. We have an economy to build, so how could there possibly be any other way?

It's like there's an old, red-faced farmer in our collective head, animating us out a fear that he'll scream at us to quit goofing off and get back to work if we dare pause to contemplate a reality not based on relentless field-clearing and tree-felling. Moreover, a term like 'Kumbaya', in the now-conventional usage, serves as lead hand for this mythological farmer, as it goes a long way towards squelching expressions of unconventional thought.

I think there's everything to be gained if people learn to stand-up to 'Kumbaya' (and other thought-terminating clichés) and tell the person uttering it to perch and rotate. The old ideas are leading us down blind alleys, and so we need to hear more from those who have the wherewithal to transcend Joe Sixpack's taunts and sneers.





Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The trouble with flags

Over the years my relationship with the idea of a national flag has changed. At one time I would have happily saluted the Canadian flag, as I held it to be a symbol of my nation's people, our values, and my home. That was so long ago, however, and things are now a little more complicated.

The post-9/11 era, marked as it has been by a war on terror that is unending-by-design, has been a period of contemplation and discernment for me as far as flags and knee-jerk patriotism are concerned. Furthermore, the current debacle in the U.S. over the Confederate flag, as well as Louis Farrakhan's incendiary comments about what he considers the racist nature of the American flag, has only served to make me ponder the issue further.

This doesn't mean that I don't love my country – it's just that I have come to loathe the idea of symbols or frames of mind that serve as invitations to stop thinking. (And especially in a time of war, legitimate or manufactured, flags are surely not intended to inspire individual free thought.)

To understand this point of view, think in terms of comparing a flag to its respective nation's constitution.

A constitution is a means by which the people can hold their government and justice system to account, and particularly in a liberal democracy, it serves as a beachhead against iron-fisted rule by politicians who ought to know better. In short, constitutions protect us from the government, which is why hawks and the elite who control governments find the idea of constitutions a stumbling block at best.

The problem with constitutions (for those who don't like them) is that they are comprised of text that can be read, interpreted and acted upon by the justice system. If well-written, a constitution succinctly declares its people's rights which, in theory, must be respected by authorities at all levels. In practice, however, terroristic events (legitimate or manufactured) are used as a justification for gutting those rights, as evidenced by the U.S. Patriot Act. (I don't think the Act's name was ironic in the least - those who proudly self-identify as 'patriots' always come across as jingoistic loudmouths who seem to hate everyone who isn't part of their racial and political demographic. Witness the so-called 'patriot movement'. Furthermore, when have things like helping fundraise to build a new library, making a newcomer feel at home, or lobbying for safe drinking water ever been called 'patriotic'? These are community-building activities, yet I suppose they just don't stack up to protecting the right to fire off a few rounds on the back forty.)

On the flipside of this dichotomy is the flag. It is not meant to be interpreted or debated – just shut up and salute it, already. (And take off that ballcap, damnit!) And because it is an empty vessel to begin with, it can be filled with whatever meaning those in power assign to it. In times of war, the conventional meaning becomes the unquestioning self-sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, and implies that they are risking their lives for all of us, even if the conflict in question doesn't remotely concern us.

And when the fallen soldier returns from the field of battle, they are transported in a flag-draped coffin, which by turns further eradicates his or her individual identity, and further discourages any questioning of the validity of the war effort itself. After all, that would be an insult to the deceased.

I fought the war but the war won't stop for the love of god.
I fought the war but the war won.

-Metric, Monster Hospital

While I believe all fallen soldiers deserve honor, it is nothing short of grotesque to me that they are so exhalted for what I think is an ulterior motive, which is to glorify militarism and prevent people from asking pointed questions. To see how insincere dead soldier worship is, just look at how those who return home alive but with physical or mental wounds are so quickly disregarded and forgotten. In the U.S. and Canada, it has taken a non-stop succesion of war veteran suicides to push their respective governments into action, and even then it's to stanch any further political bleeding.

Something like the Highway of Heroes here in Ontario strikes me as nothing more than a propaganda effort of Leni Riefenstahl proportions. Is it for the purpose of remembering the fallen soldier, or is it a ghoulish exercise in social engineering aimed at manipulating public emotions toward a more militaristic outlook? I can't think of a greater desecration to a soldier's memory than the latter possibility.

In summary, consitutions exist to serve the people, whereas flags exist to serve the powerful.

As we North Americans head into our respective national holidays (July 1 in Canada, July 4 in the United States), we should ask ourselves just what it is we are celebrating. (And believe me, in this part of the world there is much to unapologetically celebrate.) Is it our fellow citizens, our community's shared values, or our sense of civic virtue? Or is it merely a religious devotion to national triumphalism?

Perhaps a question to take with you into the holiday is this:

Why is it okay for a government to gut a constitution, but not okay for a citizen to burn a flag?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Breitbart.com: gay self-respect equals 'fascism'

It takes a very special kind of pundit to capitalize on the fallout of the recent tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina as a way to attack gays, but it seems that John Nolte, Editor-at-Large for Breitbart.com, is up to the challenge.
In his June 23 diatribe (Take Down the Fascist, Anti-Christian Gay-Pride Flag), he makes all sorts of bold assertions that are intended to spook his readers into believing that a Homosexual Army is marching into their town to burn down their churches and supress any expression of the Christian faith. Listen carefully for the sound of pink jackboots, he implies. They're coming for you and your family, values and all!

The trouble with all this is that his bold assertions are backed by a very tenuous interpretation of the facts.

He writes:

Under this banner of hate, people are outed against their will, terrorized out of business merely for being Christian, bullied and harassed for thoughtcrimes; moreover, "hate crimes" are being manufactured to keep us divided, Christians are refused service, death threats are hurled, and Christianity is regularly smeared as hate speech.

Let's unpack the above paragraph and run it through my logic filter, such as it is.

Assertion 1: People are outed against their will

The person being "outed against their will" is Rep. Randy Boehning (pronounced the same as "boning"?), a North Dakota lawmaker who voted against an LGBT anti-discrimination bill. The complication is that while Boehning was a staunch conservative politician by day, at night he was cruising Grindr, a gay social networking site, and had sent a jpeg of his John Henry to Dustin Smith, a 23-year-old man who also frequented the site. In this Age of Anthony Weiner there is no excuse for any politician to assume any sort of right to privacy if they're sending pickle shots to men less than half their age, particularly those who make their living playing to a homophobic audience. Smith didn't "out" Boehning as gay - by participating in an online forum for gay men he outed himself, if inadvertently. Smith is guilty only of exposing a politician's hypocrisy, though evidently John Nolte doesn't get that nuance. 

Assertion 2: People are terrorized out of business merely for being Christian

This is a misnomer. Memories Pizza, a Christian-owned pizza parlor in Indiana, was the subject of a boycott and public shaming online and elsewhere not because the owners are Christian but because they said they'd refuse to knowingly do business with gay people. As far as I know, there is nothing in the New Testament exhorting Christian pizza peddlers to discriminate against prospective customers on the basis of sexuality. Furthermore, why is homosexuality the only 'grave sin' that restauranteurs seem to care about? When was the last time you ever heard of a restaurant refusing to serve murderers, adulterers, thieves, bearers of false witness, defrauders, or dishonorers of fathers and mothers?

It would seem to me that the conflating of gay discrimination with 'Christianity' is a case of theological acrobatics for the sake of legitimizing hatred. Sure, you can cherry-pick some homophobic passages out of the Bible - that doesn't make homophobia Christ-like. In fact, you could cherry-pick all sorts of nasty things out of the Bible that would make any self-described fundamentalist squirm with embarrassment.

Furthermore, while the owners of Memories Pizza are indeed Christians, and while the business is a privately-held concern, it exists to serve the public at large, and not just their fellow parishoners. To use supposedly-religious reasons for alienating certain segments of that public isn't just theologically-questionable - it's bad business, period.
 
As a Christian, I am offended by people turning Jesus into a corpse-puppet like the guy in Weekend at Bernie's, and reanimating Him without His consent to validate their hateful belief systems. I would feel at least marginally better if they had enough integrity to be honest and said "Alright, we just don't like gays, okay?", rather than bringing Jesus into it.



And finally, this particular situation isn't a case of 'terrorism' - it's a form of lobbying in the direct democracy known as a market-based economy. (As evidenced by the result this lobbying effort garnered, I would say this is a far more effective system than the symbolic 'democracy' we have in place in most first-world countries.) If the politician (restauranteur) is going to introduce some ugly policy ("we won't serve gays"), then concerned third parties (gay organizations) have the right to lobby fellow voters (the rest of us pizza consumers) not to vote (do business) with said politician (restauranteur).

Assertion 3: People are bullied and harassed for thoughtcrimes

Nolte backs this assertion with a situation kinda/sorta similar to the one above, albeit in reverse, where two openly-gay owners of a gay-friendly hotel, OUT NYC, came under fire from gay organizations for agreeing to host Ted Cruz at a New York event despite his known opposition to gay marriage.

While said hoteliers are free to engage in whatever political activities they choose, the clientele who would otherwise be their target market are free to publicly express their displeasure through any legal and peaceful means.

On a tangential note, the late Andrew Breitbart had an affinity for activities that Nolte would consider bullying and harassment if circumstances were different.



Stop thinking and start shouting! It's the Breitbart way.

Assertion 4: Moreover, "hate crimes" are being manufactured to keep us divided.

Nolte dredges up a few examples here where gays or transgendered people may have lied about being being victimized on a given occasion. Even if the reportage he cites is accurate, I say "big deal" with arms folded and a look of genuine disinterest.

Gay or transgendered people are just as prone to making stupid mistakes as the rest of us. (And in making false accusations, they're certainly far from alone.) The fact that they made these mistakes in the first place is not symptomatic of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Assertion 5: Christians are refused service

Again, anti-gay beliefs are being wrongly conflated with Christianity. In this case, someone asked a bakery for cake inscribed with "We do not support gay marriage", and the bakery refused that request. The bakery probably didn't give a hoot what the person's religion was - it was the message being requested that was at issue.

In keeping with the above trend, the bakery is free to exercise discretion in how it conducts itself, and in return it has to endure whatever economic custard-pies-in-the-face result from their actions. The freedom to make a potentially wrong decision is a beautiful thing.

Assertion 6: Death threats are being hurled

Okay, so some organizations working to delegitimize gay rights (or even label gayness itself as a 'personality disorder') have been receiving some threatening emails. Perhaps they were expecting truckloads of gays to show up at their door and give them prolonged back rubs out of sheer gratitude?

When you're in the business of bullying a certain segment of society, you can reasonably expect some push back, even if it's in the unjustifiable and inexcusable form of death threats. Grow up, already.

Assertion 7: Christianity is regularly smeared as hate speech

I don't know about you, but I'm getting oversimplification fatigue the further down the list I get. In Ann Curry's interview with Kirk Cameron, she was questioning him about certain things that he has said that could be construed as incitement to mistreat of gay people. (Cameron had called homosexuality "unnatural", and went on to say "it's detrimental, and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization." At the very least, these are fightin' words.) Whether or not Curry's interpretation is correct, she has the right (and responsibility) as a journalist to question him on it. Asking a question, even a pointed one, is not the same thing as smearing.

And once again, Nolte's logic here is that if Christianity = gay discrimination, and gay discrimination = hate speech (in the eyes of progressives), then progressives must obviously be saying that Christianity = hate speech. There's a fallacious argument in this somewhere. False equivalence?

In conclusion, it seems that John Nolte would like Christians and conservatives alike to have the right to publicly demonize gays and gay rights, often in an outright belligerent manner, but not experience any resistance from the targets of these offensives. They want to get in the ring with the gay community, as long as the gay community has its hands tied behind its back. Nolte, for one, seems to want gays to know their place in the world and not deviate from it with talk of rights and equality, and is ready to pounce on them with terms like "Big Gay Hate Machine" and "fascists" whenever they dare stand up for themselves.

Nolte's frequent knee-jerk use of the term"fascist" is interesting in this case, because none of the examples noted above come anywhere close to resembling actual fascism. In at least some of the cases, they are a matter of gays or transgendered people exercising their own self-respect. (Yes, death threats and false accusations are always wrongful actions, but not fascistic.) So on that note I'll leave you with Lawrence W. Britt's "early warning signs of fascism", and you can ponder for yourself as to how many of them correspond with the Breitbart.com editorial agenda.

  • Powerful and continuing nationalism
  • Disdain for human rights
  • Identification of enemies/scapegoats
  • Supremacy of the military
  • Controlled mass media
  • Obsession with national security
  • Religion and government are intertwined
  • Corporate power is protected
  • Labor power is suppressed
  • Disdain for intellectuals and the arts
  • Obsession with crime and punishment
  • Rampant cronyism and corruption
  • Fraudulent elections
  • Rampant sexism