Deja Vu… all over again

October 19, 2011

A lot has been written in the past few days about Occupy Wall Street and the nascent Occupy Toronto movement – most of it negative. To be fair the coverage isn’t overly critical. Outside of the Toronto Sun’s typical lack of nuance in labeling each and every participant or sympathizer a “Marxist”, the common narrative, conversely, is that the biggest weakness of the Occupy movement is that it is in fact not a monolith.

The movement has been criticized for being leaderless, and thus no more than a weak alliance of specialized (or if you want to be pejorative: myopic) protest groups whose goals span the spectrum of the political left (and right) from anti-globalization to animal rights to supporters of indigionous people. Sprinkle in a few bored 20-somethings looking for some greater sense of purpose (and maybe a girl or guy to meet) and you get a disorganized group tied together by nothing more than a general sense of anxiety about the status quo.

These are fair criticisms, ones that can be thrown at any organized protest movement, not just Occupy Toronto. But does that take anything away from the ultimate purpose that brought these people together? It seems that by asserting there is no commonality between these activists, by calling them hypocrites (how can someone criticize corporations while using an iphone, many have asked), by their failure to clearly and coherently state their demands, that there must be no problem. Only look around you and you know it isn’t so.

What is the impetus of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its North American wide offshoots? Mind numbing and infuriating examples of corporate greed seem so commonplace that the next incident to grab headlines is only a week away. What is it about this very moment that has everyone so up in arms? Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine who floated the idea in the first place explained their decision as having stemmed from a lack of action on the part of the Obama administration to criminally prosecute any of the main actors behind 2008’s global financial crisis. But why this sense of urgency three years after the fact?

I believe that many people understand that we stand on the doorstep of a similar meltdown, one brought on for many of the same reasons, hell even by some of the same actors who chiseled us and set our economy back a decade, three autumns ago.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: a number of very large financial institutions desperate to receive obscene interest payments off of some poor sucker- I mean client, cook the books so that they can procure unnecessarily large loans for that same client, knowing full well that there is an incredibly large measure of risk (and suggesting they didn’t know their client would ever go under is generous!) that the payments will one day stop. But the money (your money!) has been moved in such large amounts (a necessary step to make money on the low interest rates) that the collapse of the Western world’s entire financial system is at stake if these loans are not repaid. Facing economic ruin and all that comes with it (high unemployment, currency not worth the paper its printed on, the elimination of the social safety net) should the client default, Western governments (taxpayers) are forced to bailout the irresponsible client to pay off the financial institutions.  Add to this recipe the machinations of others who are in on the fix and stand to profit from the client’s default and voila, you have Fall 2008 redux. And we’ll pay for it again – both literally and figuratively.

Imagine placing other people’s money on bets you know to be wreckless, even stupid, with the ace up your sleeve that should the shit hit the fan, those same people have no choice but to cut their losses and bail you out so that they are subject to partial rather than absolute ruin. This is happening every day. The game is fixed in everyone’s favor but our’s. It’s like that Mad Magazine cover with the revolver held directly to the bewildered dog’s head: “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll kill this dog”. We’re the dog and Goldman Sachs is holding the gun. We’re reliving the grand larceny of 2008 solely because we failed to remove the pistol from the extortionist’s hand these past three years. This is the true cause of the Occupy movement.

And we shouldn’t ignore those who wish to point that out just because their message can’t be codified in a soundbyte or slogan. Sure the explanations we hear are seemingly disparate, contradictory, even derivative. We live in a complex world, and few causes can be summed up so succinctly. And this is not one of them.

Yes - we're the dog


The Death of Rap Part I: It ain’t Coolio

October 18, 2011

I can almost pinpoint to the day when rap almost lost me for good.  It was the first week of December 1995, or somewhere thereabouts. The Billboard Awards had been on just the night before and one particular performance was causing a lot of buzz among my friends. Coolio and L.V. had performed their huge hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” with Stevie Wonder (to whom’s “Pastime Paradise” the duo owed the instrumental portion of their song) AND, wait for it…

… an orchestra of 10 year olds!!

What a betrayal!! How could a “loc’ed out gangster, set-tripping banger” have any affinity for kids? Coolio was nothing but a fraud, a fake, a phony. Nothing that he said from then on could be taken seriously. With this one act he had completely discredited himself.

Or at least that’s how my friends, and many others like them, felt.

I had missed Coolio’s performance and even if I had seen it I can’t imagine feeling any differently than I did – which is to say that I wasn’t terribly bothered by Coolio’s supposed “betrayal”. What puzzled me was that people ever took what Coolio, or any other rapper, said as literal truth to begin with. To think that a large segment of the population, including some of my closest friends, believed in the authenticity of the music industry, rap in particular, was a shock to me, and I began my move away from most music.

Let’s take a step back.

“44 reasons come to mind”

My earliest exposure to rap music came from snippets of Run-D.M.C., Salt-N-Pepa, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer (if he even counts) and Partners in Kryme (T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!). It was all fun, poppy and safe. It was also a nice departure from the rest of my musical experience which, without a Walkman or radio, was dictated by my mother’s musical tastes (think Billy Ocean, Robert Palmer, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and other sappy 80s pop stars). Thankfully my captivity to the world of “adult contemporary” music was limited to long drives to the grandparent’s, and was gleefully interrupted by that oasis known as the Sunday Night Oldies. What little rap I did listen to served as a nice reminder that there is more to music than Lionel Ritchie. It also gave me a sense of existence autonomous from my mother.

“I got the cultivating music that be captivating he, who listens”

A much larger departure began in 1993. I “graduated” onto junior high school and a world of lockers, shop class and puberty, and started to develop a growing sense of independence and “maturity” to match my new scholastic confines. Of course my musical tastes developed a rougher edge, so naturally I gravitated towards gangster rap in the form of the classic “The Chronic” released in December 1992, as well as “Doggystyle” released shortly thereafter. Both albums were produced by ex-NWA (I had no idea who they were at the time) beat artist Dr. Dre and featured a fast-paced, laid back rapper named Snoop Dogg. The music was unlike anything I had heard before, serving as a gateway into my personal musical maturity. I may not have completely understood it at the time but The Chronic, along with Nevermind, In Utero, Smash, Dookie, The Blue Album and The Downward Spiral would frame my musical tastes from then on (1994’s Pulp Fiction would serve as the movie equivalent). But The Chronic held a special place. It was raw, bass heavy, filthy and… funny.

“With a drink in my cup and a strap in my lap”

Part of the appeal of both The Chronic and Doggystle might have been my juvenile sense of humor (afterall I was 12) and the new discovery of sex jokes (Doggystyle introduced me to the idea that there was more than one position) , but there was more than that – otherwise I wouldn’t still find them funny today (that’s assuming I’ve matured over the last 20 years).

“The Chronic” and “Doggystyle” are unquestionably over the top in describing a gangster lifestyle that involved drinking, dealing, and fucking, with minor pauses for gun fights. 12 year old me never believed that such a lifestyle could possibly exist. Not for high-profile artists like Dr. Dre or Snoop, nor for any person hoping to live for more than a month without being shot, arrested or contracting AIDS (which was dominating headlines at the time). The sentiment of both albums was that a large portion of Americans lived lives that were very different from the mainstream, and that this cleavage was race-based, something that I began to understand more and more. But it was presented in such a comic way that I never believed that either Dre or Snoop should be taken literally.

“And then when I’m through with it there’s nothin else to do with it…”

Which is exactly why I was mystified by everyone being so offended that Coolio had gone “pop”, turning his back on the gangster lifestyle he lyrically lamented. I never assumed that Coolio was speaking about his own life. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was meant to act as (an exaggerated) description of the lifestyle of urban Americans living on the periphery. Even if he used “I’s and my’s” Coolio was simply assuming the role of a character describing his life – he wasn’t actually talking about his own life. There was nothing to betray cause the song wasn’t meant to be taken literally. People were confusing the authenticity of a song’s performer with its message.

Twelve year old me didn’t get how people didn’t understand that. The fact that people couldn’t accept one half of the equation  (the quality of the music) without the other (the authenticity of its performer) seemed idiotic, and, maybe worse, shallow.

That people couldn’t separate posturing and a deliberately crafted image from reality and still see some value in the song itself made me question music as a whole. Maybe we wanted to believe so badly that there was some semblance of authenticity in music to make up for the insincere and derivative pop tones that dominated the 1980s. People forgot that every musician of even moderate fame carefully manages their image, whether it be of a positive, negative or neutral/apathetic nature (yeah, those guys do it too). If fans were so easily misled, and let’s face it, stupid, than what did that say about the music industry? Like wrestling, I had assumed the music industry was an open joke that everyone was in on. I felt fine going along with it so long as there was that figurative wink to go with it. When I realized there wasn’t and that we were being played like the gullible saps we are, I didn’t want to bother with it anymore. Right or wrong, benefit or none, I just didn’t appreciate being treated like a sap.

And that was just the first step of the descent of rap in my eyes. The next phase, which essentially put the nail in the coffin for the better part of a decade followed when rapper’s began to forget their role in the joke, and started taking themselves as seriously as their fans, leading to tragic results.

Some Questions about Greece

October 10, 2011

This whole Greece debt default situation is very puzzling. Report after report from reputable sources almost insist that we stand on the precipice of another recession that will, at a minimum, rival 2008 – the worst economic contraction since World War Two. Now generally I’m not terribly interested in economic issues as they seem to require understanding of esoteric concepts that are simply above me. Plus, it is boring. But when the livelihood of hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people hangs in the balance, it tends to peak my interest – and it should your’s as well.

What is puzzling me about this whole situation are two things: first, given the severity of the alleged consequences of Greece defaulting on its debts, it seems odd that the crisis is being framed in an almost tragi-comic light. The narrative spun by most journalists has focused on anecdotal evidence of their fiscal laxity and corruption and how both are quintessentially (and charmingly) part of the Greek national character. Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Trail Fever, Moneyball, and Blindside), one of the most-read financial journalists follows just such a trope in a recent piece for Vanity Fair, not so cleverly titled “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“. To be fair the article is well researched and well written, laying out how Greece got into its current predicament, but it barely investigates the most pressing questions we should have about the current crisis: one, how do we get out of this mess? Two, why does Greece matter?

Looking at the second question, consider the following: according to the IMF’s figures, Greece had only the 12th largest economy of all European Union members in 2010, valued at $305 billion, just behind Denmark and ahead of Finland, countries whose populations are HALF that of Greece. Given those figures, Greece’s economy is a 1/10th the size of Germany’s and represents only 2% of the total EU common market GDP. Those are hardly the numbers of an economic super power. The fact is that Greece’s economic troubles should have little bearing on the health of the Europe, much less the world. If Greece reverted into a third-world country tomorrow, why should that affect us?

I don’t mean to be so cavalier about Greece’s financial woes. Obviously the country is headed toward a very dark period bailout or no bailout. What I don’t understand is how the mismanagement of an economic lightweight should bring down the entire global economy, subjecting the rest of us to similar misery?

Is it a question of confidence in country’s with similarly fragile economies (namely Spain) that when in trouble the EU will come to the aid of its fallen brethren?

Is it a case of financial institutions adopting a sceptical view that low-interest loans for dependent economies (which since 2008 is virtually all given the revenue shortfalls affecting the Western world) are a smart investment, causing interest rates to rise (which will inturn cause budget deficits to increase)?

Where does predatory lending and the interests of foreign (German and American) firms that have banked more than $400 billion in Greece fit with the pressure to bail the country out (thus receiving a return on their possibly known bad investment) at tax-payer expense? And why am I having a tough time finding material on that angle?

Shades of 2008 all over again. We may have a new setting but the antagonists appear to be the same.If (ha!) this happens again, will we be outraged enough to do something about it? I hope so, but we have to pay attention first.


A Happy Medium?

October 7, 2011

As a followup to my “voting conundrum”, in the end I chose a third option: submitting a blank ballot. This seemed to be the best way to protest the choices presented to us and, more importantly, our electoral system than simply refusing to participate, which, though miniscule in the grand scheme of things, could be misinterpreted as apathy rather than alienation. As insignificant as it is my protest is registered (officially) in some form or other. At the very least it counts as much as a vote for a losing candidate.

Though given democracy’s inherent flaws I tend to favor the centre among political parties, in the end I simply did not feel comfortable compromising on what I believed in by voting for the more Liberal incumbant as a counterbalance to the right-wing Conservative challenger given that the axis of Canadian politics, and the political life of Western countries in general, have shifted so far to the right.

My Voting Conundrum

October 4, 2011

I don’t vote. Check that, I actually have voted a number of times. What I should have wrote was that as a rule I don’t vote often. In fact, before last year I can’t recall the last time I actually voted. Maybe it was back in 2003 when voting was still somewhat new and the excitement of participating in our country’s political life (even at the most infinitesimal level) was still fresh.

So why do I so often shirk my “civic duty”? Why do I give up that right that “so many fought and died for”? Am I lazy? Apathetic?

I feel that I’m none of the above, nor do I have even a smidgen of guilt for politely declining my right. The fact is that not voting is completely rational.

Mainly comes down to a numbers game. Consider this: you live in a constituency where your preferred candidate is running a distant third with the vote split 35%, 35%, and 30% for Candidate A, Candidate B, and your choice Candidate C, respectively. This is an incredibly unlikely scenario but I’ll put it out there as a best case anyway.

Now no matter what anyone tells you what your vote is worth the fact is that within your riding there will be between 35,000 and 50,000 voters, meaning that  in the best case scenario (the best case scenario being the lower number of people votes) you own one-third of 1/1,000 of a percent of the total vote. Convince 300 of your closest friends (only in your constituency remember! we have a first-past-the-post system here!) to vote your way and you’ll get a whole percentage swing! Congratulations your candidate still loses!

The smart thing to do would be to bite the bullet, accept that your candidate has no hope and throw your support behind whichever front-runner you find less reprehensible. The trouble is that what if the platforms of both those candidates don’t appeal to you? This isn’t apathy, this is alienation. Suddenly your vote isn’t so positive. You are voting against something rather than for a platform – and the unfortunate thing is that this is perfectly reasonable. A lot of people have done it before. I’ve done it before. I’m not so sure whether I want to do it again.

Here is the conundrum: I do not want to give a plausible mandate to a candidate, party or platform that I do not feel is in the best interests of my constituency, city, region, province or country (not necessarily in that order). Yet that is exactly what the victor on Thursday will claim to have, a mandate to carry out their platform by virtue of the so-called “will of the people”. But what “will” will that be when thousands, maybe even millions follow the valid logic I presented above?

It is important to note that my obstinacy does not stem from a rigid political philosophy or a (great) distrust of politicians. For the first point, I do not possess a coherent political philosophy; I’m not so certain that I could be defined as a conservative, liberal, marxist, capitalist, anarchist, fascist, socialist, or libertarian. I may be closer to one political philosophy than another, but no party can count on my undying support.

Nor do I have so cynical a view as to suggest that all politicians are soul-less opportunists seeking to enrich themselves with power and their friends with hefty government contracts and tax breaks. Certainly more than a few are, though I doubt politicians as a rule possess a character any more base than the average person you run into on the street. I believe that for the most part they mean what they say. Are Stephen Harper, Tim Hudak and Dalton McGuinty offering tax breaks for business and placing the burden on middle and lower income families because they hate the poor and want to reward their rich buddies on Bay Street? No. They genuinely believe in a Milton Friedman-style supply-side economics system. I happen to disagree with them, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t believe that Harper, Hudak and McGuinty are crooks masquerading as public servants – I just think they’re wrong-headed, so I don’t want to vote for their parties even though, given the way other parties have fared in pre-election polls in my riding, that would be tantamount to throwing my vote away.

Of course, this brings up an important issue: the inherent vanity in voting. Why should we feel so confident in believing we know what’s best for our constituency, city, province, country? To be fair, this isn’t an issue for many as they will proudly tell you they are voting solely based on their own self-interest, however, I suspect most are at least somewhat utilitarian in their voting and think beyond their doorstep. Still, even the most civic-minded voter, who reads through each party’s platform with an open mind desperately seeking some measure of clarity to decide who is most suitable to act on our behalf can come to an erroneous conclusion. If we ignore the spending commitments and revenue projections we can get some sense of what an individual candidate or party values most, but does that get us any closer to determining who deserves our vote?  Can transgenerational problems like municipal transit and homelessness really be resolved on one page of a 48 page platform? Of course not – politicians need to simplify their message in order to be electable.

And this is the fundamental problem of democracy: big issues need to be dumbed-down or sensationalized for an inattentive electorate. Given the low turnout at most elections, mobilizing the electorate becomes key to a party’s victory, something that is achieved either through bribery (“how about a $300 rebate on your hydro bill?”) or playing to popular prejudices. Across the board, candidates seek to reach the lowest-common denominator rather than transcend politics and seek the truth about the fundamental problems that affect us. Politics becomes a sub-sub-category of philosophy, something that is entirely reactive, hence its baseness (both apparent and real). There is simply no room for Plato’s Philosopher King in the Ontario Legislature (nor would Plato expect there to be!). As a result, democracy retains its position as “the worst form of government except all others that have been tried”.

The only way to react is to either remove yourself from it, seek out change, or compromise and support the least polarizing candidate.

Since it’s too late to even try to bring about change my choice for Thursday is to either stay home or vote for the center.

Any recommendations?