Sunday, November 07, 2010

So who are all those people on your album cover anyway?

"The Speaker's Corner From Hell" is what I dubbed the album cover for Can You Hear Me? The album's title track is a conversation between the parent of someone whose child has been killed and the person who committed the act. It is ultimately a tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The cover art is thus premised on "alternative" or fringe voices throughout history, many we have integrated into our cultural ethos, others we are still not hearing as much as we should be, or at all (and of course with members of the band tossed in there just for kicks)... I've often been asked who everyone on the album cover is. Many people have identified several of the characters, but none have nailed 100%. So I thought I'd do that here.

1. Emily Carr (artist)
2. Matt Laforest (drummer / writer)
3. Andy Kaufman (song and dance man)
4. Nancy Spungen (dancer)
5. Sid Vicious (bassist / Sex Pistol)
6. Sue Johanson (sexologist)
7. Jean-Michel Basquiat (artist)
8. Jhoon Goo Rhee (father of American Taekwondo)
9. Bruce Lee (philosopher / martial artist)
10. Karl Marx (philosopher / writer)
11. Margaret Trudeau (First Lady of Canada)
12. Langston Hughes (poet / revolutionary)*
13. Henry Miller (writer)
14. Virgina Woolf (writer)
15. Mumia Abu-Jamal (journalist / activist / wrongly-convicted death row resident)
16. William S. Burroughs (reader and writer)
17. Rachel LaGroix (manager, the angel on Satan's shoulder)
18. Satan (cultural icon)
19. Hunter S. Thompson (gonzo journalist)
20. Isadora Duncan (dance's original badass)
21. Johnny Cash (The Man in Black)
22. Marilyn Monroe (the beginning and end of beauty)
23. Carter G. Woodson (writer / The Mis-education of the Negro)
24. Salvador Dali (artist / genius)
25. Raffaelo (artist whose painting "School of Athens" is the backdrop of this album cover)
26. James Dean  (the beginning and end of beauty, the male version)
27. Aldous Huxley (writer / prophet)
28. Betty Paige (hot damn)
29. Kurt Cobain (musician / poet)
30. Robb Johannes (musician / activist)
31. Jeff Logan (musician / rehab doll)
32. Ian Curtis (singer / poet / genius)
33. Luke Lombardini (musician)
34. Marcus Warren (musician)
35. Paula McGlynn (guitarist / writer / voice of an angel)
36. Charles Darwin (unveiler of truth)
37. Malcolm X (a Black Prince)
38. James Baldwin (writer)
39. Michel Foucault (philosopher / experimenter)
40. Oscar Wilde (writer / critic / artist)
41. Damien Echols (writer / wrongly convicted death row resident)
42. Leonard Peltier (Elder / wrongly convicted prisoner)
43. Truman Capote (in whose cold blood?)
44. Shannon Hoon (singer / poet / young soul)
45. Pixie (Robb Johannes' estranged cat)
46. Andy Warhol (artist / philosopher / icon)
47. Emma Goldman (philosopher / revolutionary)
48. Noam Chomsky (modern day prophet)
49. Bill Hicks (philosopher / comic / genius)
50. Edie Sedgwick (tragic heroine)
51. Frida Kahlo (artist)
52. Hariet Tubman (freedom fighter)

* The fellows beside Langston Hughes are still unidentified.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Good Riddance Gordo: a political story worth celebrating

In 2001, British Columbians, in a predictable sense of "collective" disillusion with the reigning provincial NDP government, voted in Gordon Campbell and the BC "Liberals" by a landslide 77-2 seats (I use the term "Liberal" in quotes as any British Columbian knows the Party title is a misnomer; Campbell's politics and practices have always been nothing but conservative through and through). A primary factor in his victory, aside from groupthink, was reducing personal income tax and the provincial sales tax (PST) -- which of course resulted in a reduction in welfare rolls and social services.

Campbell's victory proved that reactionary voting never seems to yield the desired results: immediately following his throning, he mailed out a biased, racist, and self-serving referendum aimed at stripping BC's First Nations communities further of their land and rights (in what Angus Reid, co-founder of Ipsos-Reid called "one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career"); removed a six-year tuition freeze that had made BC Canada's most affordable and desired destination for post-secondary education; allowed new entrants into the workforce to be paid $6/hour (25% below minimum wage); and to top it all off, in January 2003, Campbell was arrested and pled no contest for driving under the influence while on vacation in Hawaii. His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Campbell's mug shot is worth a thousand words: a red-faced politician known for corporate elitism and neglecting the disadvantaged, holding up a slate -- the symbolic value far beyond the charge itself.
After a highly-publicized and celebrated victory and a steam-rolling right-wing beginning to his tenure as Premier with a 97.4% majority in seats, Gordo was seemingly freely pass any bill he desired in a near-totalitarian regime. But Post-Hawaii, and perhaps as an act of self-preservation, his public profile seemed to disappear entirely. A nearly-reclusive Premier Campbell was re-elected in 2005 and 2009, with 46-33 and 49-36 spreads of seats respectively, predictably closing the almost comical gap of 2001, and making a Campbell overthrow a plausible if not inevitable eventuality.

But, on November 3, 2010, with an approval rating of 9%, Campbell pulled the trigger himself and resigned -- seven years after Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and several community-based organizations called for him to do just that. So why now?


In July 2009 Campbell joined suit with Ontario and moved BC towards a Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), which would combine the federal GST (5%), and provincial PST (7%). As someone who doesn't mind paying taxes myself (because I like universal health care, education, social services, public transit, and paved roads), I have always struggled to put together the puzzle of the conservative ethos in Canada: "We have the best health care coverage in the world but we constantly vote for people on the single premise that they want to cut the taxes that pay for the health care we are so proud of...." Campbell found a powerful support base amongst the catch-22 of conservative tax-haters and corporate elites, and in an ironic twist of poetic justice, the moment he turned his back on them and attempted to funnel tax dollars back into the gaping holes he created in his province's social services, his dwindling public support came under harsh public attack by the hands that fed him all along -- at a time when he needed those hands the most.

The man who capitalized on short-sighted cuts to taxation and reactionary mood swings amongst BC conservatives became the victim of his own game. And so Gordo was left with nothing to do but drive off drunkenly into the sunset. As a former long-time British Columbian, all I can think to say is: "Happy fu*%ing birthday, asshole."

Sometimes political stories are worth celebrating.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Left Behind: what happens when the left is too cool to vote

"If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line. These are the facts."

"Every year we have dozens of people who get hit by cars or trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day."

- some nuggets of wisdom from Toronto's newly-elected mayor, Rob Ford

I would never normally ascribe to biological determinism, but there must be something in my DNA that forbids conservatism. I've tried so hard, at least intellectually, to understand what drives the conservative being, and all I could ever conclude was that it's simply the product of fear, shelter, and a legacy of colonialism in the Western world. Nothing that a little education, exposure, and life experience outside the wealthy or rural bubbles couldn't solve.

There is just a certain something about the right that frightens me (of course nothing I would ever back down from though). As a recent observation by a dear friend goes: "I'm not scared of the far left. What's the worst they can do? Make me work less and still have a roof over my head, learn how to paint, talk about my feelings, and be self-actualized? I'm not afraid of that... But history has shown that the far right will wipe you out completely if you aren't on board with their ideals."

However, I realized yesterday with Rob Ford's 12-point victory to become mayor of the formerly liberal capital of Canada (Toronto), that the left is capable of far more harm than myself and my friend would like to believe: through their own arrogance, apathy, and "I'm too cool and intelligent to vote because I'm above the process" sentiments, by not voting, the left is capable of electing governments that threaten the environment,  health, diversity, tolerance, immigration, and the basic social safety net that protects us from being left behind in our most difficult struggles for survival. Yes, these are ideals and not necessarily realities, but if the ideals are removed from the platform they are no longer integrated as strategic goals to be achieved.

Here we are in the "information age" and the left, rather than mobilizing and strengthening its potential for increased awareness, wisdom, and action, has really just become a helpless post-modern wasteland of spoiled, cynical, apathetic, libertarian brats who would rather talk and judge from afar than take any direct action. Frankly, many on the left make the rest of us look really, really bad.

In spite of my misgivings of the right, one thing I have always admired them for is their belief in the democratic process (however naive some self-proclaimed "pundits" on the left would say that faith is -- but down with them, because criticism of that sort doesn't translate into votes, only lack thereof). The right shows up to the polls and votes. And yesterday in Toronto, they did just that. And won.

We can use Ford's victory as another affirmation of the classic rural/urban divide in Canada, heartland of the 50-plus wealthy homeowner versus the young city-dweller split that seems to come up every time there is a civic, provincial, or federal election. Yawn. Or we can use it to examine the arrogance and apathy of the left and recognize that inaction is as dangerous as the outcome the lazy left is criticizing.

Not all hope is lost though. First of all the mayor is really only a figurehead; a single vote on a council of many. But also, in the same way that Steven Malkmus said frustration and anger with Ronald Reagan's America inspired him to pick up a guitar and form Pavement (one of countless examples of political discontent manifesting into powerful artistic and cultural movements), Ford's election in Toronto may just kickstart a dormant social awareness in Canada's most diverse city, and spark helping hands that would otherwise have remained idle. We could be witness to an increase in community volunteering, career changes, politically-based leisure-time activities, and bringing politics into the centre of discussions and life decisions. The problem with periods of complacency (which apparently Toronto was in) is that the risk of sudden swings to the right against an unsuspecting public demonstrate just how delicate the political process can be. But let it be a reminder that we can all keep our "leaders" in check by getting out of our heads and beds and showing a bit of leadership ourselves.

So go forth and lend a hand to someone who needs it. Chances are under Rob Ford, they will need it even more.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Canada Wakes Up and Recognizes Unconstitutionality of Prostitution Laws

Today, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down three sections of the Criminal Code pertaining to adult prostitution as unconstitutional. These sections are:
S. 210(1) Every one who
(a) is an inmate of a common bawdy-house
(b) is found, without lawful excuse in a common bawdy-house, or as owner, landlord, lessor, tenant, occupier, agent or otherwise having charge or control of any place, knowingly permits the place or any part thereof to be let or used for the purposes of a common bawdy-house is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction
S. 212(1)(j) Everyone who lives wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution of another person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.
S. 213(1) Every person who is in a public place or in any place open to public view, stops or attempts to stop any person or in any manner communicates or attempts to communicate with any person for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.
To put this into plain English:

The communicating law under s.213 emerged in 1986 as a response to conservative cries of "not in my backyard" with respect to the visibility of on-street sex work. The communicating law made it illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution, which inversely resulted in the retreat and displacement of street-level sex workers having to retreat to poor
ly-lit back alleys where they could be picked up by the likes of Robert Pickton and murdered... from zero sex workers reported missing or killed before 1986 and s.213 to at least 60 missing in Vancouver alone (many more nation-wide) post s.213 after I think it's safe to say the government dropped the big one when they passed this law.

Sadly it's taken almost 25 years to change, and a lot of people close to me (including my wife!, the Pivot Legal Society, and the wonderful ladies and gentlemen involved with FIRST), have worked around the clock for years to strike that section down and provide safer conditions for people working in the sex industry, meaning off the street and into indoor settings (regardless of one's moral stance on selling sex). So, this is a strong preventative measure, I'd say, and a progressive step in a country not generally regarded as a leader in practices of safe sex work.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Soundbytes and Bird Feed: "News" in the 21st Century

Define irony: Samantha spends 3 hours a day logging onto Perez Hilton for the latest celebrity smut, criticizing so-called "entertainer" and their demands for privacy, then gets noticeably disturbed and disgusted when her preferences in footwear are openly criticized, mocked, and related to her upbringing by her friends on Facebook.

On the afternoon of February 18th, 2010, Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was driving to a dentist appointment when the radio station informed him that he had died. Twenty-two minutes later, CanWest Media pulled the story, indicating that he was in fact alive and well and their information sources were unreliable; and uncertainties exist as to whether the "source" had in fact been a Twitter post... in those 22 minutes, however, a cascade of Facebook and Twitter updates across the country lamenting the loss of a national folk icon percolated the virtual universe. People were sad and entire country turned their heads, only then to stumble over their previous sentimentality with anger towards CanWest Media -- as though they themselves had somehow been victim to a media panic, like Stanley Cohen's "moral panic" on steroids, which just as quickly was rectified in the social networking community as it had originally emerged.

It's fascinating how we acquire knowledge in the fast pace of 21st century Western life. Rather than reading books or multiple-perspectives from archives of news articles, the 140-character soundbyte has become the end-all of information and communications. One could have presented this evolution as a "media porn fantasy" in the 1980s; that ultimately it really never is the story, the facts, the point of view or even the truth (whatever that may be) that needs to be considered but the shock and awe of a concisely worded soundbyte. Surely few cultural critics would have predicted that "knowledge-as-slogan" would actually come to be reality at all, let alone to manifest in the form of non-threatening baby blue cartoon birds on computer screens.

Information sharing in mass media has moved beyond the facade of reputable journalism to the point of grassroots information sharing becoming contagious gossip -- which may be all that so-called "news" ever was in the first place. Major publications have now turned to using daily Twitter feeds as "fact finding" for entire news columns. Whereas once journalists had to hit the pavement to find real-life sources and inside scoops, they know live in an insular bubble where they never have to leave their computer chair let alone speak to another human being to produce a story. Whilst admirably news "from the people" holds a long-standing value amongst critical oral and traditional historians, and the value of non-corporate media outlets is firmly entrenched amongst those seeking multiple perspectives (though coverage of the anti-Olympic efforts in Vancouver may suggest otherwise), the question emerges: have we reached a place where we are no longer relying on trustworthy sources to screen information? Michelangelo once said, "I didn't create David, I only took away what was not David." The role of the publisher was historically one of filtering out the noise to present what consumers felt was the best possible product. Of course, many vested interests affect what come to be excluded from popular consciousness, which is a dangerous and disgusting process, but I can't help but feel that our tendency for gossip has truly morphed any reputable quality of journalism into nothing but the high school cafeteria.

So what is true anymore? Maybe Tweeted news is not a media porn fantasy so much as a post-modern orgasm. It's most certainly shattered our traditional notion of celebrity, which I for one think is a wonderful sigh of relief -- it illustrates how absurd the concept is; one needn't do anything extraordinary to have their benign activities be deemed newsworthy. All they need is an email address and a Facebook account and everyone they know can snicker at them. Our vicarious sensibilities have been displaced onto everyone and everything rather than just those individuals that corporate media deem publicly fair game for ridicule. Although I still wonder when we're just going to give it all up and start living our own lives.

Though the Gordon Lightfoot incident does ruin my plan to Tweet "Robb Johannes is dead" as a publicity stunt. What would The Boy Who Cried Wolf say to all of this?

"Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." - Bob Whitaker

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Since When is Not Eating Meat an Act of Defiance?

Rebellion is only tolerated to the degree which it will not challenge established thought patterns and ways of life. Thus, not making it "rebellion" at all.


I'm vegan. A vegan is someone who does not eat meat and/or animal products. Prior to recently becoming vegan, I was vegetarian for 10 years. A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat. And yes, "meat" includes fish. I have no idea where that delusion comes from. A pescetarian is someone who still eats fish. I used to prefer to use the term "hypocrite," but these days I don't think that's entirely fair.

Living in Vancouver for a long time, I found a very veggie-friendly community, covering the broad spectrum of vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, and tourist. A "tourist" is someone who most of us know, or who at least in the context of speaking to a vegetarian, will say, "Yeah, I was vegetarian for 2 years, I couldn't keep it up" (as though every person alive will ultimately fail as they did). Tourists usually are doing it to follow the latest health fad they read about in Shape magazine, or feel that cutting meat out of their diet will help them to lose weight. Well, it will, but if you don't research your decision and learn more about your own biology as a human being, you will develop the stereotypical "vegan" look: rail thin, gaunt, and pasty, or "heroin chic" as it's been sometimes called.

I became vegetarian 10 years ago at a time when it wasn't as "popular" amongst celebrities and, henceforth, non-famous people. It was a struggle because at the time there wasn't quite the same range of vegetarian options in the supermarket (in those pre-Yves days), but because I was doing it for political, cultural, and social (though ultimately personal/ethical) reasons, I held my ground and through learning about daily vitamin and mineral requirements, protein, digit-by-digit alternatives, and just the general and basic requirements to maintaining a healthy body, I was able to successfully transition and have never looked back.

I am surprised and amused that still, after all these years, upon revealing that I am vegan, I am faced with genuinely concerned looks or morcels of fear and/or confusion (as though fear is somehow not entirely of that which we do not yet understand). Of course, the responses are always incidental to being in a dining situation. I'm not one to wear a "Meat is Murder" t-shirt; I keep my dietary choices to myself and don't claim that meat-eaters are morally bankrupt, nor do I need to be lumped in with so-called "activists" who blow up meat factories -- vegetarians like that give the rest of us (vegetarians and activists) a bad name. Vegetarianism is a proclamation of passivity and non-violence. Why would I firebomb your restaurant if I found out the sweet potato fries are cooked in animal fat? Though I must admit, instilling a healthy fear amongst restaurant waitstaff when I drop the "V"-bomb is rather amusing but at least it ensures vegan-friendly dishes and cooking methods. But naturally then comes the classic line: "So... what do you eat then? How do you survive?" Well, for one, I'm honouring a cultural history in India of vegetarianism, where my family has existed for centuries and centuries. Go to certain parts of India, order beef, and get mad or call them "hippies" when they tell you beef's not on the menu. Do it now, I dare you! The assumption that meat is "essential" to a human diet not only discounts an entire nation's history and is, frankly, severely ill-informed and borderline racist, it also dismisses the millions of years that humans lived prior to agriculture and mass production, during which time meat was not a primary source of protein or nutrients in a human diet. Furthermore, if a life had to be taken for consumption, very strict procedures were followed around ritualistic sacrifice, use of the animal, and acknowledging its place in the cycle of life, never seeing it as a means to an end or a pawn in a game of human domination of the planet. Genesis 1:28 isn't necessarily a directive to destroy and exploit all non-human life in the interests of human expansion -- in spite of what some archaic Biblical "scholars" may try to impose.

The thing that throws people for a loop is that they expect me to look like a starving Ethiopian baby because I am vegan and, surprise surprise, I don't. I have muscles, broad shoulders, and a strong cardiovascular system, and do not fit into the preconceived formulas of what people think a vegan looks like, and the over-dependence we have on animals and animal products in our day-to-day diet. I eat very well, have developed an even greater appreciation of diverse ethnic foods in light of not being able to rely on simple meat and potatoes. More so, pretty much everyone I know absolutely loves coming over for a home-cooked vegetarian meal, meat-eaters or not, usually saying, "Wow, if I ate like you guys (meaning my wife and I), I could totally be vegetarian." Thus we face the reluctance to become vegetarian on the ground of, "I like the taste of meat too much." My response, always: "Give me an hour and your favourite recipe and I'll make a vegetarian version that will satisfy you equally, if not more, especially in the long-term. It's not the actual meat itself that you like the taste of, it's the spices, the seasonings, and the treatments -- you can make anything taste the way you want it to if you cook it properly. And your B-12s, proteins, and irons can be easily supplemented without having to pop a million pills."

Whilst I normally try to explain the massive range of wonderful food options I have available to me as a vegan, I am often received with glazed eyes and judgment (and frankly, I get kind of bored of answering the same three questions over and over again -- and do you really care why I stopped eating meat when you live under a worldview that treats anyone who does not as a malcontent and only tolerates "rebellion" until it actually forces you to introspect and examine your own patterns of thought and way(s) of life?)... so, I'm pondering just stopping the sugar-coating, cutting to the chase, and saying: "A vegan is someone who does not eat meat or animal products. Humans, on the other hand, don't fit into that category because modern science, philosophy, and religion have taught us that we are in a class above animals. So, as a vegan, I get my protein from a freezer full of unsuspecting murdered Catholic school boys. But I'll call it 'soy' if that's more PC."

Though I suspect that would probably alienate people (and vegetarians/vegans are already marginalized enough socially). Keeping the open invitation to dialogue open is, as it always has been, the way to go. Such as asking the question to meat eaters: "What is it about my vegetarianism that offends you so much? Why does it mean so much to you to eat meat that you feel the need to ostracize me, or try and pick apart every so-called 'inconsistency' in my point of view or way of life?" Do I come up to you and say, "If you're not gonna eat human flesh, you may as well not bother eating meat at all"? No, I don't, because I'd be a jackass if I did and you'd never hold a conversation with me at a party. Yet, it's perfectly fine coming from the other side, and you wonder why I may walk away after a few minutes (and then it's me who's the asshole?). Frankly, eating meat is just as much of an ethical standpoint as not eating meat; it's just not seen as such because meat-eating is the "conventional" practice in this culture. Lest we begin a discussion of rebellion, counter-culture, necessity and deviance, and other concepts too grand to comprehend in a 140 character Tweet.

So come chat with me next time you see me. I promise I won't bite (like a good vegan). I may nibble though.

"Don't criticize what you can't understand." - Bob Dylan

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill

** Please note that the point of view expressed here is that of one vegan in a band of 3/4 meat eaters.