Tuesday, August 22, 2017

TV Review: The Handmaid's Tale

I'm definitely late to this party, but it is one of those pieces of fiction that has stuck with me over the last couple of months. See the trailer here.



Perhaps the most successful component of The Handmaid's Tale is the introduction to the world of Gilead. Gilead is the fundamentalist republic which has displaced that United States government. When we are first introduced to the world of The Handmaid's Tale is alien and strange. The expressions are meaningless to us, the clothes are foreign or unfamiliar, and the culture is almost unrecognizable. Of course, it's not foreign completely, the place is still recognizable as North America, the language is American English, but there's something deeply wrong. The best part of the entire series, in my opinion, are the flashbacks.

Our main character, June/Offred, played by Elizabeth Moss, often reflects on her time before she was assigned to be Commander Waterford's handmaid. Handmaids, for those who haven't watched the show or read the novel, are fertile women assigned to the elite families in order to produce children. Human fertility has plummeted and the number of successful live births has decreased significantly. Therefore controlling fertile women is seen as critical for the survival of humanity. June's life in the near-future over the course of several episodes illustrates how everyday life was undermined by the slow crisis and created the condition for radical social transformation and oppression.

Two flashbacks in particular stand out. The first I wish to call out is when June gives birth to her daughter, Hannah. The hospital is surrounded by dozens of people praying for the mother's going into the maternity ward and for the newborns within. The maternity ward feels more like an abandoned wing of the hospital. June goes with a nurse and her child to a vacant nursery. All of the other children have died or worsened over night. Perhaps more significantly, the nurse is the first character chronologically, as far as I can remember, to use the religious extremists expressions "Under His eye," and "Blessed is the fruit." It seems natural but it disturbing knowing where such believe inevitably will lead.

The second flashback takes place at a future date from the one discussed above. The interim government passes a law that bars women from work and transfers ownership of their bank accounts to men in their lives (husbands, fathers, what have you). June and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) join a group to protest this radical changes. The protest turns violent in a dramatic scene where the religious authorities open fire upon them.

Another call out I will make for the show is the story of Ofglen, played by Alexis Bledel. Her appearance in the show is comparatively brief, but does a great deal to show the reach of the world and its darker elements. While I think the "Canada as utopia" trope is a bit heavy-handed I liked all of the elements of Americans trying to seek refuge, or figure their lives out in Toronto is pretty compelling.

The show is ultimately about women, their bodies, and control. Sex is often used in the show to demonstrate some point about those three elements. Those scenes can be long and uncomfortable, but I believe that's the point. The viewer is suppose to confront the scenes and deal with it.

Though I should spend more time on it I'll briefly say that the show is stunningly beautiful. The cinematography is very powerful and captures the colour and mood of the world perfectly. In many ways the world is desaturated of colour, but not to the extent that it is rendered lifeless, merely stark. The music and sound design are appropriately ominous and foreboding at the right moments and guides you appropriately through the story. The performances are very strong, particularly from Yvonne Strahovski and Ann Dowd.

I would recommend The Handmaid's Tale, but I would have the caveat that the show is quite violent, including sexual violence of many different kinds. This is a world where women are explicitly objects. That their autonomy, rights and reproduction are the exclusive domain of powerful men. This review does not encapsulate the show, but if at all interested I would recommend giving the pilot a watch.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Worth Reading - August 17, 2017

We'll begin with the tragic news of the day of a deadly attack in Barcelona, Spain

John Ibbitson writes about the rallying point Trump provides for fascists

How do we raise taxes in the era of populist revolt

The Ontario government's promise of a balanced budget is relying upon optimistic projections

Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party, says he won't be interviewed by Rebel Media until there is a change in their editorial direction

Ontario municipalities are calling on the province to raise the HST to help fund infrastructure


Emma Teitel defends shaming those who participated in the right-wing rallies in Charlottesville. I have mixed feelings about this, and haven't made up my mind yet. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville

On Saturday violence erupted on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia escalating in vehicular homicide wherein a car was driven through a crowd of people. That's probably the most bloodless, tame way I could describe what occurred a few days ago, but this is an opinion-based blog, so it's probably time to put that aside.

Would highly recommend watching this New York Times video giving a simple breakdown in the events that occurred in Charlottesville. Violence in Charlottesville was likely inevitable on some scale. Neo-Nazis tend to stir up strong feelings, surprisingly. However, there were at least two groups who were anathema to one another. The first was a demonstration and march by White supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in park and intended to march through the city to Emancipation Park. A group of counter-protestors gathered at nearby park and intended to countermarch to disrupt their gathering.

While I think that it has been pretty disturbing all on its own, I don't particularly want to discuss the nature of response to these events. Though from what I've seen I am none-too-pleased by some of the media coverage. Some have seemed to find far too much comfort in the "their both to blame" narrative.

I think we have to take a moment now to reflect on how the hell we came to a point in 2017 where people are chanting racist, literal Nazi slogans, waving Nazi, Confederate and other right-wing flags in America. While I cannot substantiate the veracity of the tweets I saw a number of posts apparently from veterans (this is where it gets dubious) about having fought the Nazis and now their flags are waved by Americans claiming to be patriots. Something has gone deeply wrong here.

In a certain sense this is nothing new. In the far-right and white nationalist movements of the United States there has always been a blend of American patriotic and Nazi/German imagery. Right-wing militias, survivalists, Aryan Nation, and certain biker gangs have all formed a cohort of white supremacists. The Nazis are the go-to villains in much of American culture, yet we see with far greater public acknowledgement that there are those who view Hitler as one of the good guys.

It's a baffling about face, especially given the degree to which America's history in World War II made the country what it is today. Still, I don't expect twenty-first century racists and fascists to have a strong grasp of history.

White supremacy has always been tied to terrorism. This is a fact. If you don't believe me do a casual search for the history of the KKK and lynchings. There is a certain dark poetry that the vehicular murder of a protestor and the injury of nineteen others mirrors attacks by Islamic radicals in recent years.

I am going to try to keep my remarks balanced here. I do not believe we're seeing a mass movement of grassroots American Nazis. I do believe that in the last few years that far-right rhetoric has been normalized to a certain extent. A few years ago these people would be far more marginalized and few would be willing to publicly defend them. Parts of the far-right, the racist right, is now part of normal discourse. I don't put this on Donald Trump. This has been an element of American culture for decades, and normalized particularly in the wake of 2007 and during the Obama years and the Tea Party.

America in 2017 is not Weimar Germany. I hate that I have to say that so sincerely. What is socially acceptable, or reasonable within the public discourse though is increasingly embracing these people, and if it doesn't they create their own media to share their own twisted ideology. This problems is only likely to get worse. Racism, fascism and Nazism are inherently violent ideologies and we should sadly be braced for more incidents such as this. There is no part of that that isn't heartbreaking.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Worth Reading - August 10, 2017

Shorter list this week. No reason why, just less grabbed my attention I suppose. 

From TVO's The Agenda's Blog, the cost of our democracy with the death of the local press

A short video that explains the costs of free parking

Toronto's Medical Health Officer discusses the notion of full drug legalization

Andrea Horwath has criticized Kathleen Wynne for not calling a by-election for Toronto Centre

Brad Wall is stepping down as Premier of Saskatchewan.


Jagmeet Singh shows impressive fundraising numbers in the NDP leadership race. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cutting Back on Sugar

I instinctively dislike elements of the 'Nanny State.' With some exceptions it seems to me that certain governments are far too willing to interfere in the private lives of its citizens. Some regulations make sense as they have a public health connection, others less so. The first one that pops into mind is the pit bull ban in Ontario. It doesn't bother me much as I dislike dogs, but it hardly seems like the role of the government to pick and choose acceptable breeds.

However, something popped into my mind lately and I have a hard time shaking the fact that there might be something to the fact that we may require a little more government interference in our lives in a certain way. I want to talk about sugar.

When I heard about the initial spate of sugar taxes I have to admit I was highly dubious. It felt like unnecessary interference in people's lives and an irritating "Father Knows Best" approach to public policy. However, in the years since the first controversial sugar tax proposals I have become increasingly familiar with the negative role sugar plays in our private and communal lives.

Talking about nutrition and diet information on the internet feels virtually pointless to me to a certain extent. Whenever I have sought even basic answers to questions the internet will spit back contradictory advice. This is besides the point, I just say this because I'm going to be light on sources for this one.

There seems to be a growing academic and public awareness of the problems related to sugar. By sugar I mean refined white sugar and similar additives. This information had been bouncing around my head for a few years but it came to a point when I watched a video talking about how sugar has become such a problem in the North American diet.


I have no doubt that there are flaws in that video. Here are the salient points. A public association between fat and weight gain/ill-health created a strong stigma for fat content in foods. To improve taste sugar was added. No to mention sugar is used as a preservative and is present in large quantities in a huge array of products.

Over the decades there has been a growing obesity epidemic and rise in diseases such as diabetes. Trying to change public perception on issues like this seem near impossible. Every day for the rest of your life you could be told the sugar in your soda pop is cutting you life short and you'd still probably regularly ingest one. I know this, and I do.


Sometimes the state has a duty to discourage destructive behaviours. I hesitate to support something like a sugar tax because I know immediately that the burden would fall disproportionately upon those disadvantaged and least able to afford it. Still, policymakers may have to contend with the large quantities of sugar in our diets and the social and personal impacts that may have. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Worth Reading - August 4, 2017

Sorry for the delay in the post. I was working on it yesterday and it got so late it seemed silly to post it when no one would see it. 

Strong Towns looks at housing in San Francisco and affordable housing in general

Eric Grenier takes a look at the NDP leadership race and discounts some of the talking points about fundraising. Donor analysis is perhaps misleading. I've given to three leadership candidates so I appear as a unique donor in three camps.

Researchers have concluded that 13 Reasons Why had a negative impact on mental health. 

Canadian journalist Jen Gerson kindly asks Americans to pull their heads out of their asses when it comes to Justin Trudeau. 

Andrew Coyne writes on the current discussion on how to reform Parliament

Here is another article from Strong Towns looking at the topic of gentrification and what it means

Here is a cute little animated short about a boy who have a crush on another, cause why not? 


The City of Brampton gave money to the Brampton Beast hockey team under questionable circumstances

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Canada as a Concept for Others

I am a supporter of a podcast call The Mixed Six. As a reward for backing the podcast I get the privilege of submitting questions for the hosts to answer. The two hosts are well-educated and modestly inebriated men having heady conversations over beers. The conceit is basically the best conversations I have with my friends after about three or more beers. I submitted a question on the week of Canada for their perspectives on Canada and its influence on American debates as Americans, which they answered in episode 19. They are both lefties, it is safe to say, and I found both of their takes interesting and it inspired some thinking on my part.

It is no secret that Canada is often used as a prop during American political debates. Our country plays an important role in the rhetorical exchange of Americans, but the interesting thing it isn't Canada itself that plays a part in this debate, it is the conception of America. Both Spencer and Caleb of The Mixed Six cottoned onto this distinction immediately. Discussions in America about Canada aren't really about Canada for the most part, they are about America. The same is true to a lesser extent here, but Canadians have a greater familiarity with American and vice-versa so it's possible that our conversations are more grounded in the real experience of American lives.

Depending on an American's given political perspective Canada can be an illustration to how thing should/could be or an abject lesson in policy failures. For the conception of Canada the facts as relates to this is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps the best case study for this is to look at how Americans discuss our healthcare system. For many on the American left Canada is a model for what healthcare in the United States could be. We have universal care that does not exclude any Canadian on the basis of wealth. Even as a person familiar with these issues in America I don't understand American healthcare. How many times have you heard distortions about the nature of our healthcare? I don't view it as perfect, but it's certainly offers trade-offs I'm willing to accept. From the conservative point of view we live in a rationed system of long wait times and privation. Both sides caricature life in our country as a stick to beat the other, not to say anything about Canada.

This fetishization of Canada is epitomized during controversial elections and with coverage of our 'beloved' Prime Minister. It was widely reported that the Canadian immigration website crashed on the night of the American election and the days followed it. Liberal/progressive Americans often use the refrain that if a conservative wins they will flee to Canada. It is a convenient short-hand to reject the reactionary element of American political life. It's not truly rooted in a sense of Canada as a real place. Likewise the humiliating fawning the world does over our Prime Minister really fails to paint an accurate picture of his government or its policies. Would international press celebrate his feminist credentials if they saw the arms deal to Saudi Arabia? Or the way junior female cabinet ministers have been repeatedly thrown to the wolves? Or what about his broken promises on key electoral issues, or he violation of his government's commitments to Indigenous Canadians?

While familiarity breeds contempt I think is more accurate to say American familiarity with Canada has created complacency. Canada is as different as a subset of America, like how California or the South is distinct from the rest of the country. Canada is America but with French people, it's colder and has healthcare.

Ultimately this misrepresentation in foreign media reinforces and lends strength to those comfortable in the status quo. The privileged can pat themselves on the back because despite his flaws Justin Trudeau is not Donald Trump, which is hardly convincing enough on its own. Doubling down on our own (unearned) smug superiority is hardly helpful for Canadians. It's a curious mix of reactions. On the one hand we want to be acknowledged for our successes without becoming complacent by them.

Ultimately very few of us know another culture, country or society. What we have is our conception of them. Our broad understanding of these places drives our reactions to them and perhaps provides tools for our own debates. While it may be nicer to have the world understand us better I think it is more important to be more critical of these reflections back on ourselves and not stare too deeply into blurry that is so appealing.