Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi, Rob Ford, Russell Williams, narcissism, “consent”, Margaret Wente, and other stuff

It’s ironic that Jian Ghomeshi’s star rose in part because of his amazing interview with another troubled celebrity ­- the weirdly talented actor and wannabe musician, Billy Bob Thornton – a show which will now live in memory as a kind of performance art pas-de-deux.  Maybe they instinctively “got” something about each other.  Maybe not.

I liked Q and was a regular listener.  Because he was something of a musician, Ghomeshi could ask decent questions about (pop) music, and was either a great, empathetic interviewer or an amazing fake.  Though nothing is yet proven, the picture emerging is pretty convincing and dark.  One can easily imagine why women have not come forward until now.

Q was an important part of Canadians’ daily life, and its passing (even if resurrected, it can’t be the same) is sad – particularly given the gruesome reasons, the shock and betrayal.  Dissecting why the show worked may be relevant to why Ghomeshi was able to do what he did.  Jeet Heer’s Storify is interesting, as is this: (I didn’t realize Ghomeshi didn’t write his opening essays - perhaps because he seemed to take personal credit for them afterwards).   I’m left wondering about a lot of things - the relationship between personal flaws and talent, institutions and employees, stars and audiences, narcissism at large and up close, the wider issue of “consent”, and a few other things like Rob Ford – especially since it now appears Ghomeshi’s story also involves video.

Ghomeshi and Narcissism

This is purely speculative, but given his own past references to mental health (neuroses and anxiety disorders), and particularly the fact that Ghomeshi required a replica of his childhood teddy bear be turned away from his violent sexual acts – the former CBC star may suffer from some form of mental illness (though he’s obviously very high functioning, and responsible for his actions).  The high functioning part would not be unusual; think of Russell Williams, a predator also enabled by his status within a different kind of institutional culture.

I find it slightly easier to imagine how Williams performed his military job while diverting enormous amounts of time to sexual perversion, and ultimately, murder.  His duties were command and control related rather than creative.  He was highly organized and reportedly had issues with obsessive-compulsive disorder which may have been partially camouflaged by the organization and fastidiousness of military culture.  In this way the two parts of his life seem in some way related.  Ghomeshi’s issues were perhaps masked by a different, artsy, bureaucracy that tolerated eccentricities.

Still, it’s a bit harder to grasp the yawning discrepancy between the creative talents of Ghomeshi, including his sympathetic on-air persona - and his completely opposite, repugnant private life.   It’s almost as though the show didn’t just feature great performances and artists, it was performance – a daily ‘creation’, or fiction, everything he himself was not - pitch perfect for his audience - for his own, and their, self-reflection. 

One wonders whether there’s a link between what seems like a hole in the core of Ghomeshi’s being, and the remarkable cultural edifice he crafted to fill that excavation.  He (and his insufficiently acknowledged team) seemed to intuit exactly what the audience wanted in terms of tone, even as he himself was deaf to real people (interestingly, his Twitter self-description list ends with “mammal”, not ‘human’).  

Problems with “consent”

While tempting to see the Ghomeshi narrative through a “consent” lens, I wonder about how useful this is – though I’ll limit comments to more common definitions of consent – not the BDSM kind, about which I know nothing.

More than past generations, young people are deficient in experience.  They live and breathe the limited, mediated modalities of image and text, whose effects are not fully understood, but are already seen to be less conducive to both meaningful physical intimacy and a solid sense of self.  We’re told there’s a decline in close, real-life friendships, increasing unfamiliarity with the subtleties of face-to-face, non-verbal communication, and a massive rise in the consumption of porn at younger ages.

“Desire” is disappearing (in the sense of “longing”, which as the word implies, involves a certain remove - a distance in time or space – something the internet has erased). Brains are being rewired in the context of shrinking experience and increasing self-documentation and self-regard (“How do I look to myself?”  “How do I look doing this?” - versus the ability to be fully absorbed in an activity or another person that must simultaneously seen as separate from self). While there are relevant power and gender imbalance discussions to be had, this aspect – the shrinking experience, the recording and posing/posting aspect, and the internalized performer/audience aspect - is something that probably affects young men and women equally.

Whether or not men are more responsible for the overarching social architecture that permits violence (yes, they are), the larger effects on both men and women of these broader changes may be similar, and are, for want of a better word, alienating.  It may make young men more likely to commit assaults and young women less likely to come forward, as in the Ghomeshi case.  “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, didn’t know what was supposed to happen”… were some of the reasons given by Ghomeshi’s victims for speaking only now, when the media has given them “consent”.

Some women apparently left right after Ghomeshi’s assault, some stayed around for a while to be polite.  They wondered if this was normal.  This suggests that as well as the socio-political imbalance (feeling their story might not be given credence should they tell it), they perhaps didn’t feel or trust their own experience to begin with.  It’s not clear that saying “no” is so easy, or would have helped in any case, when dealing with a quick, unforeseen cuff to the head. 

“Consent” is perhaps too simple.  It’s yes or no (0 or 1).  But sex, like any intimate relationship, involves a lot of grey (and not necessarily the “Fifty Shades” kind).

Focusing exclusively on textual/verbal “consent” seems reflective of our shrinking ability to have, negotiate, or even imagine rich, complex, fluid, physical, non-verbal/text experiences.   So one wonders if the solution is really to be found in enforcing only those narrow and explicit verbal contracts and strictures, or whether it would be better to expand the questions, concerns, and attention we give to this.  Its larger aspects are endemic and have no easy fix, like “Like”.

Does pulling away count?  Must a ‘no’ always be spoken?  Does a look mean anything? Aren’t these also important parts of communication that young people (glued as they are to their texts and phones) need to develop if they’re to have full, healthy relationships?   Isn’t non-verbal sensitivity part of what’s needed?  And quite apart from the limited effectiveness of “consent” as a safeguard, how is love, or poetry about love (by men or women) ever to be made out of a constantly re-negotiated contract?  

In that sense, consent just seems symptomatic of a bigger problem.  At the start of this fiasco, it seemed perfectly normal to discuss Ghomeshi’s presumed or proposed “consensual” BDSM as OK.  There’s something ironic and troubling about the reliance on narrow contractual, verbal/textual tools to combat potential abuses in what is already becoming an atrophied and diminished aspect of our lives – something that was, and should be, the most profound, subtle and meaningful expression of intimacy and connectedness.

Ghomeshi, Rob Ford, high culture and low
Does the Ghomeshi story share anything with the populist narcissism/representation dynamic of the Ford phenomenon – a particularly constructed public obsessed with a celebrity who purports to “look like them” rather than “represent” them in that older, political sense of the term?

Sure, Ford is more demagoguery than artfulness, more high culture than low, but it was interesting to see the two stories playing out simultaneously the night of Toronto’s municipal election.  Rob Ford, another distorted man-child, also demonstrates a gift for narcissistic representation (often consisting of outright misrepresentation), and also saw no reason why egregious acts in his ‘private life’ should be seen as having anything to with his job. Ford too seemed perfectly attuned to what his audience wants; they were more interested in being represented in the sense of being ‘seen’ - than in the older kind of representation that would produce housing, transportation or other services. (The Fords, promising to champion social housing, had voted against improvements, and this mattered not a bit to those smitten by their own image on Jimmy Kimmel or their instagram accounts).  Ford too, seemed aided in his outsized ambition by his astonishingly flawed personal life and a similarly remarkable ability to lie to both himself and the public.  It was almost as though the more glaring his personal vices, the larger his ambition became - a not dissimilar conflation of ego, audience and representation as in l’affaire Ghomeshi.  

All of this is our (sad) culture.  That watching Ghomeshi’s Facebook ‘Likes’ decline became a “story” is symptomatic of it. There are deep questions about changing forms of representation, technological self-absorption, violence and consent, the cult of celebrity, and institutional responsibilities.  I just wish people with more skills, insight and knowledge than I would talk more about it.  Maybe we need a program like Q.

Note:  Margaret Wente is weighing in on Ghomeshi again, failing to mention she was dumped from the Q media panel following her own scandal – a plagiarism story that also involved an institution protecting and enabling one of it’s ‘celebrities’.  Among other things, well before that bigger story became news, she’d been on Q talking media 'ethics' while regurgitating a column she wrote about the Occupy protests which featured an invented Occupy protester, apparently hastily lifted from an unrelated website.  One can debate the relative proportion of narcissism, laziness and entitlement at work with Margaret Wente, but free of overweening self-regard she is not.

As for Ghomeshi, I met him at the gala for a cultural event he hosted in 2013 at The National Gallery, and for which I was a juror.  Since I left early, I don’t know whether he picked up any young women at the after-party, but now I’ll always wonder.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Margaret Wente: “Duplicitous” or “ignorant”?

“Duplicitous”:  marked by deliberate deceptiveness in behavior or speech”.  This is a word Ms. Wente used to describe a BC doctor last week - after misrepresenting her views.  “Ignorant”:  “lacking knowledge or awareness”, also “discourteous and rude”. 

Neonictinoids have been in the news lately.  And given that The Globe and Mail is a ‘newspaper’, one expects its columnists to be aware of what is reported.  They are, as they say, entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts. 

A while back Wente defended neonictinoids (increasingly blamed for bee deaths) by citing anecdotes from her hobbyist beekeeper husband. Why bother contacting scientists or relevant professional bodies?  Unsurprisingly her latest effort also avoids recent relevant science, and quotes another retired hobbyist who she perhaps encountered at a country fair honey competition. Walter Zimmerman’s expert publications consist of a cranky letter to the Hamilton Spectator. 

The only other evidence Wente presents is a link to a Canadian Senate committee (we know how our government values science).  But even there, what she cherry picks is a questionable representation of Guzman’s (now largely out of date) remarks.  Guzman cites earlier research from his field (he’s a specialist in Varroa mites, not neonictinoids), and even so, contrary to what Wente writes, agrees that bee die off “in spring… seems to be neonicotinoid pesticides”.

Mites are pretty clearly not the issue.  One publication notes that while pesticide makers like Bayer and Syngenta  prefer to blame them for the bulk of bee deaths, the data doesn’t support this.  Varroa didn’t appear to be a factor in the majority of cases of large-scale die-offs and the first spike in bee deaths in Canada coincides with the arrival of widespread use of neonics in 2007, whereas Varroa arrived in the 1990s.

Given hubby’s hobby, it seems unlikely that Wente would be unaware of this and other new, more relevant research published and much publicized, since Guzman’s comments.  But amazingly, Wente fails to mention Dr. Nigel Raine, Research Chair at Guelph, an eminent  scientist who actually studies neonictinoids and bees – even though his precise findings were widely reported:

Bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides become impaired and unable to support their colonies, causing those colonies to slowly die, according to the results of a study out of the University of Guelph.  The study, which was published Tuesday in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology, tracked the foraging habits of 40 bumblebee colonies over four weeks. Researchers fitted the insects with tiny microchips to track their movements via radio and compared the habits of neonicotinoid-treated bees with untreated bees. The study found insects exposed to neonicotinoids fared significantly worse than their untreated counterparts…The bees treated with neonicotinoids were much less able to collect pollen… “They actually became worse at collecting pollen, which is exactly the opposite of what you would expect.”

And many other more recent reports, including one by Eric Atkins in the Globe itself, describe the mounting scientific evidence about neonics as “unequivocal”:

A group of 29 scientists from four continents found unequivocal evidence from hundreds of published studies to claim that “neonics” – the most widely used pesticides in the world – are having a dramatic impact on the ecosystems that support food production and wildlife…

…The taskforce, set up four years ago, analysed 800 peer-reviewed scientific reports on neonicotinoids and fibronil, another type of systemic pesticide, a group of pesticides that are absorbed by all parts of a plant, including roots, leaves, flowers, fruit and even nectar and pollen”.

So the question is this:  Is Ms. Wente spectacularly unaware of widely reported research on this issue (in which case - is she lazy, irresponsible or ignorant?), or is she being “duplicitous” - deliberately withholding from readers the relevant reports, and citing as ‘experts’ her hubby and others on the weekend hobby-farm fair honey circuit?  While there will certainly be no response, it should be a question of credibility for the Globe and Mail. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Margaret Wente, bullying and irony

Recently Margaret Wente went after Naomi Klein – first for her looks, and then – having not bothered to read Klein’s new book – for what she (falsely) claimed was not included in it.  It’s one thing to launch contrarian volleys at attractive young female authors who are getting loads of press; someone of Klein’s stature expects legitimate blowback, and has a platform from which to respond.  But this week’s rant contains a bizarre, unsubstantiated and unnecessary attack on two obscure women – something I find problematical. 

How a school project by a Vancouver design student came to be dragged into Wente’s column as the face of state tyranny is puzzling.  Here’s the relevant bit:

“soft paternalism” can morph pretty quickly into “soft authoritarianism,” exemplified by people who are dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. I ran across a prime example in an e-book by Vancouver’s Bree Galbraith called The Designer Nudge. In it is an interview with Dr. Verity Livingstone, a breastfeeding specialist at the University of British Columbia. The issue is how to nudge new mothers into breastfeeding. Dr. Livingstone is firmly in the camp that believes bottle-feeding borders on child abuse and should be discouraged by any means available, even duplicitous ones.

“If you are trying to move them along, to nudge them, you have to decide if the information has to be ‘scary’ to possibly shift them sooner than the positive bit would,” she said.  That’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s a short step from nudging people to terrorizing them and pushing them around.

“They are simply imposing their own preferences on the rest of us”, Wente concludes, “And I don’t like bullies”.   

Cass Sunstein, originator of “nudge theory”, advisor to Presidents, well known public figure, gets a mention at the beginning of the article, but escapes Wente’s wrath.  Nor are powerful figures like Mayor Bloomberg - whose soda ban initiatives would make a more suitable target - positioned as examples of nudge theory nudging into tyranny.  Instead of advertisers, leading opinion makers or legislators, Wente zeroes in on a strange target - an Emily Carr student who published a set of interviews on the interface of nudge theory and design with a few educators and experts.  Among these, Wente singles out Dr. Livingstone as a “duplicitous” terrorizer.

Unlike Sunstein, or Klein, Ms. Galbraith’s academic writing has very limited readership.  She’s apparently a good student, and the small publication Wente has somehow (and this remains a mystery) unearthed as an example of tyranny is apparently work for her Master’s degree.

In it, Galbraith makes no authoritarian pronouncements.  She poses mostly intelligent questions.  It's hard to see how the questions, or Dr. Livingstone's answers would seem to any normal person to be particularly “terrorizing”, “dogmatic”, “self-righteous”, or “wrong”.  Even were this so, Wente doesn’t make a case for it; unlike the student, she simply states these things as fact.  The only ‘evidence’ appears to reside in one word (“scary”) pulled from a lengthy and otherwise benign interview with Dr. Verity Livingstone.

You can read it here.  It contains standard language and policy on breastfeeding from Health Canada, the Canadian Pediatric Association, the WHO, or similar bodies.  Health Canada is unequivocal: “Breastfeeding is the normal and unequalled method of feeding infants. Health Canada promotes breastfeeding - exclusively for the first six months, and sustained for up to two years or longer”.  The American Academy of Pediatrics goes further: Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice”.   But Ms. Wente takes no issue with the big science bodies, focusing on Dr. Livingstone - who nowhere in her interview suggests, as Wente claims, that bottle feeding “borders on child abuse”.

On the contrary, she acknowledges that some women can’t breastfeed “for legitimate reasons”, and as a result “are feeling a guilt trip put upon them.  We have to be aware that we can’t be so fanatical that there is only one way of doing it, accept that there are times when people’s behaviours can’t be changed – we have to support everyone”. 

So why select Livingstone and misrepresent her in the pages of The Globe and Mail?  Did Wente contact the women first? If not, why ambush individuals who are in no position to respond or command the kind of readership of Wente herself, or Sunstein, or Klein? Aren’t there many more obvious examples of “scaring” people into particular behaviours?   And why not link to the student’s publication so readers could judge for themselves?

Ms. Wente seems to have a thing about the “tyranny” of breast-feeding.  In a column a few years ago, she used some of the same language about “child abuse”, along with material that demonstrated attribution problems related to an earlier article by Helen Rumbelow  and a blogger named Susan Barston.  

Wente: One of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research is Michael Kramer, professor of pediatrics at McGill University. “The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” he says. The trouble is that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and neither side is being very scientific. “When it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational.”

Rumbelow: …one of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research… Michael Kramer, professor of paediatrics at McGill University, Montreal.…“The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” Kramer says. The trouble is, he said, that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and “neither side is being very scientific ... when it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational.”

In Wente’s version the quotation marks slide, shortening one quote and presenting as her own prose some of what in Rumbelow’s article appeared as Kramer's words.  In addition she seems to take some of Rumbelow’s summary of Kramer as her own prose.  In the same piece, she appeared to borrow from writer Suzanne Barston, who published an interview with Joan Wolf on her website.

Joan Wolf, in Suzanne Barston’s article:

…breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children… we are making mothers crazy today by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids. 

Wente reproduces this, casting the same words published in the interview as something Wolf “told one group of moms”: 

"Breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children," she told one group of moms. "We are making mothers crazy by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids."

In addition to intellectual and journalistic sloppiness, it’s the unnecessary mean spiritedness in Wente’s writing which continues to astonish – the seemingly arbitrary selection of sacrificial victims who can’t fight back.  Like the zero tolerance she claims we should reserve only for student plagiarists, when it comes to ‘bullying’, Ms. Wente seems remarkably lacking in self awareness.