Have you heard? Jenny McCarthy says she’s not against vaccinations after all. This, of course, comes as a relief, because otherwise a reasonable person could conclude she’s spent years peddling nonsense at a real human cost, as children die from easily preventable infections that medical science gave us the tools to beat decades ago.
Oh, wait—McCarthy actually does have a long record of peddling nonsense, and there has been a terrible human cost, it’s just that she’s now just being deeply dishonest about her easily verifiable record. If McCarthy hasn’t ever literally said, “Mothers, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t get your kids vaccinated,” she’s done everything but, telling parents the choice is between measles and autism. Sure, the science may not even remotely support that assertion, but who cares?
The forces of reaction—of which McCarthy is a prominent but mercifully dim example—don’t simply come out and oppose something these days. If it were just McCarthy, we might still have a public health problem, but it would be a manageable one. Unfortunately, it’s not just her.
To hear movie stars speak of one another is usually boring—until they inadvertently let something interesting slip. So a while ago, when Bollywood’s Ranveer Singh suggested co-star Anushka Sharma had the industry’s best body—and it was because she worked for it—it caught my attention.
In part, it’s because he had something resembling a point. To be clear, I have definitely never watched this bikini scenefeaturing Sharma more than once and then felt wretched for being the world’s worst feminist ally. I’m just saying that, if you are going to lay down an arbitrary, misogynistic standard of beauty, Sharma happens to live up to the current one.
Why, though, was the effort expended to realize the ideal so important? Singh’s comments, after all, seem to praise the process as much the “result”—that the noble triumvirate of being fit is to “eat right, sleep right, and train hard.” Recently, an answer came in the form of a study about stomach surgeries as a treatment for obesity. Scientists have found that, rather than simply reducing the size of the stomach, getting laproscopic surgery actually changes the composition of both gut bacteria and bile, and it is actually that which is responsible for sustained weight loss and fighting diabetes.
Would Aristotle be good at Twitter? This has been on my mind lately. As the latest round of acrimonious social media debates have popped up in the form of “Cancel Colbert” and the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, people have again taken to arguing vociferously on Twitter, doing their darnedest to convince others of their rightness. So I wonder, would the person who tried to set out in Rhetoric how persuasion works be good at arguing with people in 140-character snippets?
The accepted wisdom is that those who are good at argumentation in other venues are also good at it on Twitter. A lot of the time, that seems quite true: it’s why writers, essayists, and annoying pedants have taken to the service so happily. But as I watch the kinds of people who seem forced to endure arguments with others—namely, women, people of colour, and other activists—I get the sense that the rules of rhetoric laid down by folk like Aristotle are especially unsuited to Twitter. More interestingly, though, maybe watching people on Twitter invent new rhetorical tactics suggests that what’s wrong with online discourse isn’t that it is hampered by constraint, but that there isn’t enough of it.
I started interning at The Walrus just out of university. The application process was rigorous; the work—mostly fact-checking—was intense and unpaid. But I was glad to be there. The program was overseen by a compassionate, dedicated mentor who made sure we received a real education in return for our contributions, and the other staff members made themselves accessible. Everyone was happy to answer questions, offer advice, put us in touch with someone. They taught us all we wanted to know.
I’m not anti-internship, though there are two ways in which I’m biased. I was hired on after my Walrus internship, a matter of extraordinary luck; and I have supportive parents who let me live with them in Toronto while I worked for free. Working for pay, I’d watch interns dart from office to bar shift to tutoring gig, scrounging for rent and bus fare, all while struggling to make an impression good enough to justify the time and labour. This can be exhausting and demoralizing, especially when it doesn’t lead to a job at the organization for which you’re interning, and it typically doesn’t.
In the aftermath of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, you can find a perfect illustration of the three most important things you need to know about 21st-century plane crashes: they take over the news and popular conversation; they are, almost by definition, weird and mysterious; and the second thing is a direct result of the first thing.
Last century, plane crashes were comparatively common, and often for the stupidest reasons. In 1945, a plane crashed into the Empire State Building because it was foggy, and, flying blind, the pilot turned right instead of left. In 1958, two planes crashed mid-air over the desert southwest of Las Vegas because one was civilian and one was military, and they were covered by two different air traffic control systems.
I was, as far as I know, the last person to talk to my friend Ross. I know we spoke on the phone, but I don’t really remember about what. I think I told him to take care—I assume I told him to take care, because I knew he was calling from the hospital.
I didn’t know he was there because he had swallowed a few handfuls of Tylenol 3s—he had big hands, too—and a bottle of vodka. He hadn’t shown up at work that morning, and after we couldn’t get ahold of him any other way, we managed to track him down at a hospital on the north end of Edmonton. We stopped by, but he was asleep, and had, I think, asked not to see anyone, which is apparently the right of self-admitted patients.
The moral underpinnings of a zoo in the modern world are tenuous. When we got our first zoos in the collectors’ society of the 19th century, they were used to bring exotic things to us. Occasionally, they even contained humans with varying levels melanin in their skin; there was little difference between a zoo and a circus.
The body is a text. To communicate with another human being is to consider them as a book. Unable to see into their souls, we encounter others as collections of signs: a smirk or a crinkle around the eyes, a hand placed on a cheek—words upon words as we try, in futility, to express to one another what we think and feel. The soul may be irreducible, but to be human is to reduce it nonetheless.
How, then, should we feel now that the text of the body has become machine-readable?
It’s not a video you’ll want to watch to the end: the scene tilts up to catch a big man in denim and a collared shirt yelling at a smaller man, a well-known neighbourhood panhandler. It’s way past last call outside a club on Vancouver’s Granville Street, and a crowd has gathered, the bystanders’ faces either grim or filled with mirth. The big man has paid the smaller man for a chance to kick him in the groin. “I’ll fuck you up,” the hulk yells before taking a step back. He winds up and kicks. His object dodges involuntarily, losing his claim to the money and limping off screen.
Another man steps in and remains for a few errant but painful kicks before grabbing the money and bolting across the street. The kicker follows. A high voice screams for help. Another voice near the camera breaks into howling laughter. The big man tackles the smaller one to the ground and grabs the money out of his hand.
Just underneath the sign that says Salvation Mountain is another one asking for donations of paint. It’s not hard to see why: the mountain itself, a handmade version of Calvary, complete with cross, looks like a child’s furious scribblings blown into life. Blues and greens and reds splash across the hill, cut through with a snaking yellow—the yellow brick road, according to another sign beside it, upon which you can walk up past the letters that proclaim GOD IS LOVE, and stand under the cross.
South from that vantage, there isn’t much but those gnarled, low branches that let the desert surrounding Southern California’s Salton Sea pretend that life has any business around here. Every other direction, it looks a bit like a particularly spacious used car lot: old motorhomes, sand-blasted minivans and the odd unreasonably shiny, late-model sedan are sprinkled throughout breaks in the brush. Clothing lines and tents and grills and metal barrels surround them like the vehicles were shaken out before being plopped in the sand.
I only learned after returning within range of roaming-charge-free wifi that this collection of squatters actually had a name: Slab City, after the concrete foundations that used to hold up military buildings, and have since been occupied by some combination of drifters and drop-outs. On the way in, we passed a sun-baked man who appeared to be wearing a sarong riding a no-shit donkey; the only other people who weren’t in rental cars walked.
When I was in junior high, there was a trend of boys going up to girls they liked (using “liked” rather generously here) and pulling down their pants in public. This was in the time of Juicy Couture sweatpants, those loose-fitting, candy-coloured terry-cloth items that sat low on your hips and really let your muffin top breathe.
The boys targeted the popular girls, eager to see their underwear, the underside of their butt, their pubic bone. Truly, junior high boys are treasures.
The market is huge and about to get much bigger—so why have high-end design companies almost entirely ignored people with disabilities and demand for a next generation wheelchair?
What comes to mind when you think back a decade to 2004? A few things stick out for me: the mounting horror over the Iraq War; the beginning of the long dance of veils to bring Michael Ignatieff into Canadian politics; the speech one Barack H. Obama gave to the Democratic National Convention that year; and, of course, the re-election of George W. Bush that would put Obama on the road to the White House in 2008.
Bush’s re-election was helped in part by nearly a dozen ballot initiatives in red states that banned gay marriage that year, in a time when the Republican Party was, amazingly, even less discreet about its homophobia than it is today. But ten years later, anti-gay measures across the United States are falling before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor. There may yet be incremental reversals, but wiser writers than I are confident the forces against marriage equality in America have been dealt a mortal blow.
This is only in part because public opinion has turned around on the question of marriage equality. After all, public opinion has often been a lagging indicator when it comes to human rights—as recently as 1994, a majority of Americans opposed interracial marriage. The majority of Americans do now tolerate gay and lesbian marriage, but there’s a funny wrinkle to that fact: most Americans think the rest of the country is more intolerant than they are.
Reverse fairytale: Valentine’s Day, 2013. While sitting on the toilet after a romantic evening, a beautiful young woman named Reeva Steenkamp was shot to death by her handsome boyfriend, the Paralympian track star Oscar Pistorius. In his murder trial, currently unfolding in a Pretoria courtroom, the judge will want to know why, not if, Oscar killed his paramour. He will explain that he was under a hypnogogic fog in the dark of his bedroom, and mistook his beloved for a violent intruder, emptying half a magazine into the bathroom door behind which she cowered. The prosecutors will insist that Oscar is an entitled celebrity and a violent man with a history of bad behaviour, and his fusillade was aimed at Reeva in all her bountiful blondness, and not at some imaginary bogyman.
In stating their case, the prosecutors will be forced to acknowledge that South Africa is a violent country, in which violent intruders occasionally infiltrate even the up-market, high-security compounds in which Oscar unquestionably killed Reeva. These intrusions are the baseline fear not only of South Africa’s economically blessed white minority, and not only of the country’s increasingly wealthy black middle class (whatever “middle class” means in the South African context), but also of poorest of shack dwellers, who don’t have mercenaries patrolling their neighbourhoods in armoured pick-up trucks, trained to counter any home invasion with violence at least as extreme.
International relations is hard, often opaque, and never as straightforward as we’d like it to be. Most of us probably have no chance of understanding any of its complexities until Netflix hits, say, season five of House of Cards, when Frank Underwood is appointed Secretary-General of the UN.
Take Uganda, for instance. Yoweri Museveni—the well educated, historically left-leaning president heralded throughout the ‘90s in our part of the world as just the sort of leader Africa in general and Uganda in particular needed—takes a big, fat stand against the gays. He growls in a public speech or two. The international community gets its back up. Denmark withdraws funding. Museveni’s people rally. The UK and the US make angry, upright noises about sexuality-based “aid conditionality” and whatnot (as they have, on and off, since at least 2011). His people rally more. A national tabloid with a generally antagonistic relationship to the president runs a supportive cover story about Uganda’s “200 Top Homos.” International activists are outraged. International Facebook wits express relief that, hey, at least the bottoms are safe.
It is a sad paradox of modern existence that on a planet thick with humans—a place chock-full of them—so many are so desperately alone. A recent survey found that more than a third of Americans over 44 are lonely, and almost half of them have felt that way for more than six years. Here we are, desperate mariners floating through a sea of humanity—people everywhere but not a one to have a casual drink with on a Thursday evening while chatting about the latest episode of True Detective. What are we doing wrong?
There are plenty of potential reasons for this state of affairs, enough theories to fill sociological textbooks and fuel a thousand think-pieces. Is the big anonymous city isolating us? Whatever happened to bowling and community? Is it Facebook’s fault? One common explanation, the scapegoat in plenty of vaguely countercultural movies and high-school pot-smoking bullshit sessions, is materialism. Call it the Fight Club Thesis: our love of objects is making us sad.
Is cultural imperialism the wrong phrase to describe Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp? On the surface, it certainly sounds absurd. WhatsApp was, after all, yet another Silicon Valley company that was simply swallowed up by the Valley company par excellence. Typical Palo Alto incest, sure, but imperialism?
Yet, it was the term that leapt to mind as soon as I heard the news. Like millions of people, my family, a diaspora scattered across the globe, uses WhatsApp to stay in touch despite the immense geographic distances that separate us. Now that a company like Facebook owns it, it feels a bit like your favourite band selling out. Even if, in truth, there never really was any pure state to begin with, it still feels odd that a thing that was an intimate part of your life has now been sucked up into the contemporary emblem of the evil empire.
Belgium is a royal signature away from being the first nation on earth to allow children of any age to be euthanized.
Now, many’s the time I’ve wished for someone, somewhere, to sign something like this. Usually, it’s been as I’ve been sitting in a plane, a theatre, a café, or at my screen, acquaintancing friends who have come to think theirs are clever, or cute, or funny, when they are in reality just bog-average spawn who should be kept under wraps until they reach an age when someone might reasonably want to employ or fuck them.
And yet, now that it’s being presented to me on what I can only presume is the actual silver platter on which kings receive the laws they are to sign, I am concerned.
If the arc of this moral universe bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it doesn’t do so quickly. The curve of the Earth is so gradual we spend the majority of our lives not noticing we live on a sphere. The difficulty, from wherever we stand, is trying to see over the horizon—backwards and forwards.
Looking backwards, it can be hard to understand what the struggle for gay and lesbian rights has already come through. The battle to simply not be subjected to violent police harassment, the battle for loved ones to be able to comfort each other as they succumb to terrible diseases, the battle to call those loved ones “husband” or “wife” and have it mean the same thing it does for everyone else.
Or maybe just the battle to live honestly. In Ellen Page’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign where she came out last week, one of the reasons she listed for coming out was the simple exhaustion of having to live lying by omission.