Saturday, November 29, 2008

Death by Terrorism... versus Death by Capitalism

For those who have grown up in a country like Canada, it's difficult to imagine what things must be like in Mumbai at the moment. For the families of the victims, there is anguish and anger - at the loss of their loved ones, at the perpetrators, and at the politics of terrorism which punishes the innocent. Unlike 9/11 in the US, terrorism in India is an ongoing phenomenon, yet because the terrorists struck Mumbai - where western influence is in evidence everywhere - this is big news. Mainstream media are doing their usual comprehensive coverage, with step-by-step explanations of the timeline of events, human interest first-hand accounts, and the local connection (any Canadians who were victims).

As we ponder the tragedy of death under these circumstances, there is an unrelated story which is buried under the Mumbai headlines. In Nassau County, NY, a temporary worker was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart, when hundreds of impatient shoppers literally broke down the doors to take advantage of the 5:00 AM start to "Black Friday" sales. There was no malice in this death, no anger. No one intended for anyone to get hurt. People simply wanted bargains.

I've been in life-threatening crowd situations a few times. It is a terrible feeling to realize that a crowd is out of control, frightening to see the potential for disaster and death so close. When a large crowd of people presses forward and those at the front have nowhere to go, either the barrier containing the crowd will collapse, or people will get crushed. I've experienced tightness of breathing from the pressure, and had that flash of memory from news reports of similar incidents when people described how the deaths occurred. If you fall, you're not getting up again. There's no space to manoeuver, and those behind you are being pushed forward, trampling anything underfoot because the crowd is so dense and tight that no one can see their feet or the ground.

However my life ends, please - if it's not a natural death, at least let it not be inconsequential. We hope our lives will have value, that we can make a difference in this world. It would be nice to leave this world in a similar manner. Most of us will die of old age, or perhaps of illness. But we don't tend to imagine dying a senseless, meaningless death. I'm not talking about accidents; I'm referring to the "Darwin Awards" stuff, or the flukes that sometimes end up on the internet "news of the bizarre" sites - like getting a piano dropped on your head. I don't need to be eaten by lions while helping starving children in Africa. But could my death have some purpose?

The Mumbai terrorism victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their deaths weren't exactly accidental, but their loved ones might see it that way. At the moment, it may be hard to attach meaning to these deaths. But when, one day, the terrorism ends, the Mumbai incident will have played a part - if only in increasing the desire to end strife and achieve peace. These deaths, then, may one day have purpose, even if they seem not to right now.

The Wal-Mart death has no such meaning. A man is dead, and for what? So that a few people could get a 50" plasma for $800? How much of a saving is that? How many people saved money on xmas gifts? I wonder if the people who saved money at Wal-Mart today will stop to think about the part they played in this incident.

Not that the Wal-Mart shoppers should take the blame alone. In learning all about "Black Friday", I am amazed at the stories of people pushing, elbowing, and grabbing merchandise out of the hands of others. What have we become? We may think we are motivated by the need to save money, especially in these hard times, but that is just an excuse - and a cop out. In capitalist society, our number one motive is greed. Would you rather be nice to a fellow citizen, or save a couple of bucks?

In the Wal-Mart death, there is potential for meaning. Just as the deaths of 11 people at The Who concert in Cincinnati led to the demise of "general admission" seating ("festival seating" in US dialects), so perhaps this death will result in significant changes to "Black Friday" sales. (Canadian Boxing-Day sales are similar, but the savings are not as good, so the sales don't create the same frenzy. It's a kinder, gentler madness. But the concept and the greed are still there.)

We live in the age of the internet; don't tell me a substantial portion of this can't be done online. I don't even care what the solutions are, but when we are reaching the point of fist-fights - and deaths - over sales merchandise, it's time to put a stop to it. Let's not let one more person die because of our greed for a bargain. If we can prevent that, this year's Wal-Mart death will not have been completely meaningless.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gay Bashing is a Hate Crime

On November 3, Jane Currie and her partner, Anji Dimitriou, were assaulted by a man as they were picking up their children after school. The same man had verbally abused them on previous occasions. This time, the man swore at Anji, accused her of talking to his child, spat in her face, and then attacked her without warning. When Jane intervened, she was hit as well, until other parents intervened. Jane needed four stitches to close cut on her cheek; both have black eyes. Mark Scott, 43, was charged with two counts of assault causing bodily harm.

Jane and Anji want Mark charged with hate crimes. Oshawa Police are reported to be "investigating", but say that charging someone with hate crimes is usually up to the Crown attorney's office.

Why is this being debated? The fact that a physical assault is accompanied by slurs such as "fucking dyke bitches" cannot be a coincidence. Violence against a person based on race, religion, or sexual orientation is a hate crime. Being a lesbian is not a crime; attacking someone for no other reason than that she is a lesbian is. Can anyone really imagine the public reaction if a straight couple, picking up their children from school, had been viciously beaten simply because they were straight? Keep in mind also how the public would have reacted if a man had viciously beaten a single woman.

As I continue to ponder the significance of Remembrance Day, it occurs to me that the gay community would do well to recognize the importance of its own remembrance - of the accomplishments made by those who fought the battle for gay rights, and the acknowledgement that the battle is not over. Americans celebrate the election of their first black president, and yet the same election put up barriers to gay marriage in Arizona, Arkansas, and Florida, and rolled back the right to gay marriage in California. While gays in Canada appreciate how far ahead we are in acceptance from the straight community, the assault on Jane and Anji is a disturbing reminder of the neanderthals still out there whose ignorance and hatred can lead not only to violence, but the creation of a new generation of bigotry. Remember, Mark Scott is a father.

June 2009 seems a long way away; we still have to get through winter. But come the end of June, gays will be out in the streets, celebrating another Pride week of parties and festivities. For those who are too young to remember Stonewall in NYC and the bathhouse raids in Toronto, Pride Week is just an excuse to party. But it is much more than that. It is our Remembrance Day. It is a reminder of the days when it was ok to openly discriminate against gays, when gays had to fear being "out" in public, when being gay was looked upon as a disorder, when we had to fight for our rights. Today we have to fight complacency, and remember that the atmosphere we enjoy did not exist 30 short years ago. And clearly, we are not at the finish line yet.

One day, gay activism will be obsolete. In the meantime, there is work to be done.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who or what are we honouring today?

Remembrance Day takes me back to my teaching days. I could never ignore such an occasion, with everyone walking around wearing poppies, and soldiers in uniform on the streets, on tv, and in newspapers. As a grade one teacher, it was an opportunity and a duty to introduce an important concept and start a foundation for further learning. I maintain that there is almost nothing you cannot teach 6-7 year-olds, as long as you remember their vocabulary and level of knowledge. So every year I taught a big lesson about Remembrance Day.

It was not, of course, about glorifying war or the military. It was about honouring the people who fought for our country and our freedoms. No one understands that better than I do; my Father and uncles all fought for Canada during WWII.

For young children, we want to downplay violence, and also have to be sensitive about fear of death. So I would talk about the wars of the past, and that our hope for the future was that those wars would never happen again. I taught about the concept of learning from our mistakes. That wasn't idealistic, nor overly hopeful; I don't know many who expect another world war.

While we have come a long way from the world wars, today we have an army in Afghanistan. We very nearly sent soldiers to Iraq. So-called "free" countries have taken part in the invasion of Haiti, where Canada helped remove a democratically elected leader. We intend to continue the occupation of Afghanistan, where conditions have worsened instead of improving, and where our soldiers are not wanted. We have abandoned our reputation as an international peacekeeper. Canada's own General Hillier removed all doubt about that when stated that a soldier's main purpose is to kill.

Today's Toronto Star online has a video link featured prominently, in which a young man with a creepy skull t-shirt says that "Canadians have a new-found respect for the military." Eh? Not in my world. While I do believe a lot of people enter the military with the best of intentions, the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti debacles - among others - have painted grim portraits of the military and the difficulty some soldiers face trying to do the right thing in the face of orders to the contrary.

The entire recognition of Remembrance Day rings hollow as Canada continues to occupy Afghanistan. The PR machine, including media, military, and government officials, tells us that we are there to do good; there is overwhelming evidence that that is not the case. And while Obama has supported American troop withdrawal from Iraq, he wants to divert troops to Afghanistan and step up the fighting there.

Harper and Obama are not committed to peace; on the contrary, they are committed to war. And so, on this November 11, 2008, what are we teaching our children? What are we honouring?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Life gets in the way...

There's so much to blog about, with the US election days away and the Republican clown-car/horror-show drama in the news daily. It's been difficult to decide what to blog about: Republicans purging Democrats from the voter lists, Republicans claiming the misspelling of "Obama" on ballots as "Osama" was a typo, Republican racists using the word "nigger" at McCain rallies...

But I've been short the time or energy to blog.

Three weeks ago, as my family was planning the usual 20-person Thanksgiving weekend dinner, my brother-in-law had a stroke. He had been ill with cancer (terminal), but this was unexpected. He made some good progress in hospital, regaining movement on his right side. But Thursday he took a turn for the worse. He passed away Sunday.

I've spent some time in the hospital over the past few weeks, and although you don't have to look too hard to see the flaws in our health care system, I am grateful, once again, to be living in Canada and not the US. Maybe I'd have forgotten that if McCain wasn't in the headlines daily, claiming the American health care system is the best in the world. When you go to see someone in the hospital, you should be thinking about how to care for that person, not how to pay for the care.

I'm grateful for the kindness of the nurses at the Scarborough Hospital. A friendly face makes all the difference when you and a loved on are dependent on their care.

Now there's a hole in my heart. It's easy to regret not having spent more time with Ian. He was one of the nicest guys I've ever met.

There are no prayers. I came to terms with religion long ago (in another hospital, in fact). What is religion if you only pray when you need something? For myself, I'm ok with the idea that there is no afterlife, that when my time is up, that'll be it. It's more for others that I hope there's something more. Ian deserves more than this.

Taken from us too soon. We love you, Ian.