Inside the snow globe

In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.

A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.snow globe

Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.

He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.

Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out? 

Mitchell says
Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Snowstorms.
Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
No, they’re called snowstorms.
Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.

Facebook privacy is a joke: How Edward Snowden changed my online habits

Facebook privacy is a joke: How Edward Snowden changed my online habits

Image: ubuntubook2.wordpress.com

For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks — reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs, and occasionally writing commentary here. This routine coincided with the purchase of my first Mac laptop, which gave me the option of being online while propped up on the couch, with my coffee steaming on the table next to me.

By the time  Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedinGmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.

Of course, I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we all know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.

All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof — almost everything.

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to  be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.

As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.

I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canadaor the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.

Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s  more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:

When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.

When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…

…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about. And the more you talk about the more you’re ignored. The more you’re told it’s not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.

Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.

To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.

And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.

Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:

“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”

When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network – your audience, in a sense.  But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.

On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful  governments.

Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.

Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.

But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:

“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”

Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, AppleSkype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the  observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.

If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the U.S., as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk.  Stop using these “free” social media and email services — close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.

If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong — the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.

We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.

Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.

Image: ubuntubook2.wordpress.com

Originally published in Rabble.ca

The Hubris of Systems

One of the reasons Edward Snowden managed to collect thousands of sensitive documents from the NSA and then escape overseas, is because the NSA’s greatest weakness is its overconfidence in the strength and predictability of its systems—both its  information technology systems and its organizational systems.

Systems are self-contained, predictable, perform specific roles and fulfill pre-defined requirements. The creators, implementers and maintainers of systems tend to conflate human beings with systems themselves. Systems are not capable of originality; they do not act in the world.

The NSA and other surveillance organizations rely on monolithic and consistently patterned systems in order to ensure predictability and prevent outside actions from disturbing the flow of information collection and analysis.

The NSA’s weakness and blind spot is its inability to consider the possibility that an individual from within could act out and disrupt the system by allowing the outside world to enter in – a world that is anti-systematic and disruptive.

In an article about Russia’s decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Julia Ioffe says: “[The Russians] assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.”

She says that this statement applies equally well to the US in relation to Russia. It is also a good description of hubristic nature of massive spy organizations like the NSA.

Edward Snowden’s actions are a beautiful example of the capacity of human beings to create new beginnings by acting in the world in a wholly new and unpredictable way:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The potential that each person has to introduce new possibilities into the world is a threat to massive information systems. These systems rely on limiting unpredictable actions and behaviour. Such disruptions are perceived by the system as malfunctions or new elements that must be subsumed and stripped of their uniqueness.

Ed Snowden broke ranks with his fellow system maintainers: “…one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” -Hannah Arendt

Laughing too soon: the joke of online privacy

For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks – reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs.

By the time  Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Gmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.

Laughing too soon: the joke of online privacy
The stickers on Ed Snowden’s laptop: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TorProject

I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.

All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof – almost everything.

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to  be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.

As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.

I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canada or the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.

Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s  more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:

When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.

When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…

…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it… until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.

Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.

To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.

And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.

Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:

“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”

When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network – your audience, in a sense.  But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.

On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful  governments.

Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.

Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.

But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:

“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”

Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the  observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.

If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the US, as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk.  Stop using these “free” social media and email services – close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.

If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong – the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.

We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If  an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.

Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.

An open letter from within glass walls

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: marchwinds@hushmail.com
Date: Tue, Jul 16 at 09:53 AM (UTC)
Subject: A few words of support
To: edsnowden@lavabit.com

Hi Ed Snowden,

Since your email address appeared on the Web, you’ve probably been inundated with emails from people around the world. Or maybe people are afraid to write, knowing that you’re very closely monitored, and not wanting to lose their ability to cross borders. I am writing anyway!

Thank you for the risk you are taking. Listening to the interviews that Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras did with you inspired me greatly. Much of the focus in the US media has been on how the US government is spying on US citizens, and there has been little concern about their spying on citizens of other countries. A typically insular perspective.

As a net-connected Canadian, I am very active on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin and WordPress. I have known since I joined these platforms that I pay for these services with some of my personal information.

But when I saw the documents you released, I realized just how compromised these online services really are. My passwords are keys to
rooms with glass walls, and on display is everything about me.

Having realized this, I have deactivated my icloud account, removed most of my photos from Facebook, encrypted my hard drive, moved all my backup data to a terabyte hard drive in the basement (gotta encrypt that) and opened a HushMail account (with the intention of eventually deleting my gmail account). I have also turned off location services on my phone and beefed up its password.

Really, it’s kind of too late for me and most social media users since we have already allowed so much information about ourselves to be made public. As an activist, I have a great many connections to aboriginal and climate activists so have probably been on lists for years anyway.

Everyone says that it’s no problem that governments have access to our personal and private information, because as long as we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about. Sounds crazy to me. If you weren’t Jewish, Slavic, Communist, gay, handicapped, etc., then you were safe in Nazi Germany. Right up until you were added to the long list of so-called wrongdoers.

It is clear to me that you love your country very much. Probably more than most of your American detractors (ironically). The current government of my country is very conservative, and very much in the pocket of the US government. Having travelled to Iceland, I have also considered moving there! But it’s almost impossible to immigrate if you are not a part of the EU, and my Icelandic friends tell me their current government is quite conservative also. And anyway, I still love my home, even if the government is terrible at the moment.

I wrote a blog post about your activities:
http://marchwinds.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/a-man-of-conscience-is-a-rare-thing/

If you need anything from a Canadian, and it won’t get me arrested, let me know! If it will get me arrested, let me know anyway and I’ll see what I can do.

I wish you safe travels and pray that you find a safe home.

Jennifer

Thoughts from the continuum

I would like to challenge the notion that there are “mental” illnesses and “physical” illnesses – that certain illnesses are biological and others are psychological.

For example, what are the causes of high blood pressure? Well, according to WedMD, it is caused by the following factors, most of which are no less “psychological” than the causes of depression or anxiety disorders:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Too much salt in the diet
  • Too much alcohol consumption (more than 1 to 2 drinks per day)
  • Stress
  • Older age
  • Genetics
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders

And if you look at the list, you will see that many of these “causes” of high blood pressure are the same as the causes of depression. The following all contribute to depression’s onset or its return after remission: stress, alcohol abuse, family history of depression, genetics, older age and lack of physical activity.

There are other known (and probably unknown) causes for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure, no doubt, but isn’t it interesting that people with high blood pressure are almost never sent to a psychologist for therapy, even though their condition would probably be improved by learning to cope better with stress, reduce alcohol consumption and change and improve lifestyle?

What about type 2 diabetes, many cases of heart disease and chronic pain? These conditions could also be improved through specific types of psychotherapy and counselling, often in conjunction with medication.

I have grown tired of the argument that people who suffer from certain “mental” illnesses like depression and anxiety should not take medications, but should instead see a therapist to get to the root of their problems.

These illnesses are not curable, as far as we know. They are conditions, just as high blood pressure and diabetes are conditions. Those who suffer from them have to manage them, usually with some combination of medication, exercise, stress reduction, nutrition and, often, psychotherapy. Why is it that people with conditions that can be measured with a blood pressure cuff or a blood sample are not so often told to get to the root of their problems?

And then we have scientists like Dr. Irving Kirsch, whose research into anti-depressant medications resulted in him confirming his own bias that the medications don’t work and are nothing but placebos. Imagine if you were a diabetic and had been taking a medication that helps you keep your blood sugar in check and a scientist publishes a study telling you that it’s all in your head?  “Guess what? Your medications don’t work! You just think they do!” That’s what Kirsch has done, and many media outlets trumpeted his message uncritically.

Scientists are in the midst of developing an antidepressant medication that works in hours instead of weeks. Perhaps if we start having medications that have rapid effects, the notion that antidepressants are nothing but placebos will come to an end.

We have learned that even our genes are influenced by our environment, with certain genes being turned on or off depending on the conditions in which we live. There is no absolute division between environmental and genetic causes of illness, just as there is no real dividing line between the psychological and the biological. It is all on a continuum. To believe otherwise is to create obstacles to wellness for people suffering from a great number of conditions. Why close the door on psychotherapy for high blood pressure problems? Why discourage sufferers from using medications for their anxiety?

I realize there is a problem with medications being overprescribed in many cases, but there is an even bigger problem with under-treatment of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain and anxiety disorders.

Just as there are biological and psychological dimensions to all diseases, there is a moral aspect as well. We can call on sufferers to improve their diets, manage their stress, get to the root of their problems. We can deny health coverage to smokers who develop lung cancer. We can discourage medication because we are so sure that sufferers can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But moral judgements won’t reduce suffering or lower the great burden of disease that society continues to bear. The costs to us are enormous in terms of lost productivity, social breakdown, medical expenses and quality of life.

In a World

We live in a world of darkness. But the colours come from the inner world to the outer world. – Norval Morrisseau

David and I lived by the river once. From shore we cast thoughts into its lights, felt its whirlpools close in. Though rivers don’t circle, the one near our town reminds me to return to the swirl of water around rocks and stones, to the stand of firs on the block, the neon-vinyl of the pizza place. Maybe David liked the blue inside the green of pines, and the wide river reaching to the other shore.

David went to my friend’s school, and she was a small, pale stranger then, wandering the halls. Her hair was so dark and weighty, you could see her thoughts moving in the strands. There is a rich, late night in her, a place without chalk dust or linoleum; a field at dusk covered in blueberries, their skins absorbing and letting out light. It is a place where night is always coming on; you never need to worry about morning.

At school we had read the poem David. You probably remember, he died in the mountains; it was the first afternoon in September; the rocks gave under his feet. He grasped for a hold and fell, later drowned. Michel Trudeau drowned too; they tried to reach him from chest deep in the snow, but it was too late to grab his parka, the curls of his hair.

That was the first I knew of the land’s intentions. Outside snug cities, it would not hold you. It would change what it wanted; make frost out of flesh, broken sticks from bones. Once David and I walked on the river ice, looking for clear, snowless stretches. Far out, the ice broke. We ran and the cracks raced ahead of us. We were soaked. Our skin went numb, our hearts slowed, thoughts broke to pieces. The snowy path, the clear blue sky filled with river holes, sloshing up black water. We found a way back. Others never felt again the tenseness of tree branches snapping in the cold, or the silent, enormous country rising up over the tops of the buildings.

David and I are small figures, bundled in coats within the cold cities, delicate as two elderly men I once saw at a wedding, twirling red roses given out by the bride, shyly, sweetly. In spite of the chill, something is still giving way. We are each passing through to the other, dragging the snow and earth behind. Our life in this land clings to us, like rain brought in to a warm café on a stormy summer day, as you remove your jacket to join an old friend.

Caving at La Fleche

A poem I wrote a few years ago, after a trip to La Fleche caves in late winter.

All my stories are buried under white snow. I walk over them
where they sleep, curled around the roots of red pines. In the cave
we entered, you could see bats by looking up in the darkness.
Training a head lamp on a crevice showed me a dozen, nestled
against limestone, sleeping fur sparkled with frost.
Night time butterflies, wings folded.

Small jewels of time, moving: one second, then another:
each tiny creature taking in, letting out breath. What could I find
under red pine roots if I had vision to see through white wash
of spring snow? My hands turn red as I dig beneath drifts
that have grown deeper through winter. I want to cup something,
a patience held in, and wait there with it until glistening snow turns
to water; wings know it is time to open, roots to descend.

 lafleche

A man of conscience is a rare thing

Ever since I first saw the video of Edward Snowden, recorded in an undisclosed hotel room in Hong Kong, I have been following media reports on his whereabouts, his government’s attempts to “bring him to justice,” and the massive American spying program that he exposed.

A man of conscience is a rare thing

When I saw the video, I was struck by the simplicity of Ed Snowden’s actions. When we are young, it’s easier to do the right thing, or perhaps the “right thing” is more clear to us, because we’re not worrying so much about protecting family, making a living and our personal safety. Snowden has left all these things behind.

Much of the power of his actions comes from this simplicity. No prevarication, justification, or any other five-syllable words. Snowden followed his conscience.

“I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’” Ed Snowden

Right now, the American government is paying lip service to the rule of law, and John Kerry, Secretary of State, has even suggested he is deeply troubled by China’s willingness to protect Snowden, which it did by allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong. The official Chinese response to the US request for the extradition of Snowden was that the American request “did not fully comply with the law.”

Given that Snowden had recently provided the Chinese government proof that the US has been hacking into its computer systems for years, it is hardly surprising that Chinese officials dragged their feet in handing Snowden over to US authorities.

I am mystified as to why John Kerry not more troubled by his country’s massive spying apparatus.  How can a presumably intelligent human being stand before the entire world and justify this massive, unconstitutional invasion of privacy? All this in the name of freedom from terrorism. As frightening as terrorism is, more people die in the US each year in traffic accidents. Far more.

And why are we not more troubled?  Western governments are able to count on our unwillingness to leave our comfort zone. We are anaesthetized by our attachment to comfort and material things, hypnotized by the drone of our daily routine: get up, go to work, navigate traffic, pay bills, do chores, go to sleep – a rhythm punctuated by moments of real connection to people, to nature, to ideas. But all in all, we are half-asleep, and the government is listening to all our chatter, listening for disturbances in the cadence of our activities.

“…you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think  many of us are because it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” – Ed Snowden

Kerry defends the Obama administration’s spying policies and Obama calls on other governments to respect the rule of law. Yet what about America’s own constitution and laws? This huge spying program is illegal. America has no grounds to appeal to the rule of law. This is reality and we need to remind politicians of it.

And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake
But half asleep?

-Primitive Radio Gods

Time in glass

Mitchell: Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Annie: Snowstorms.
Mitchell: Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
Annie: No, they’re called snowstorms.
Mitchell: Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

Being Human – Love, loyalty and friendship

 

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship
“You could say we’re all from different parts of the same country.” – Mitchell, Being Human

Imagine if some unspeakable change took place in your life, and you found yourself on the outside during every moment of every day? This is the story of Being Human, the story of a ghost named Annie, a vampire (Mitchell) and a werewolf  (George) who become roommates in a rundown flat in Bristol.  As Annie says, “we’ve driven off the edge of the map but we’re still travelling.”

When you’ve driven off the edge of the world, fallen out of human society so completely that you cannot find your way back, your redemption becomes the company of others who are also on the outside: your companions in an unbelievable world, a world you have been thrown into. You come to  know each other and love each other more than ordinary humans ever could.

The BBC 3 program Being Human explores the lives of three characters who are no longer human. They have been cast out, but they find each other, as Annie says: “So. What have we got left to look forward to? Us refugees. The flotsam and jetsam of death. Maybe, if we still deserve such a thing as mercy, we find each other.”

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship

Being Human is a courageous program – like its characters, it drives off the map and encounters its audience there, in a strange, unbelievable world. But even if a vampire, and werewolf and a ghost are not human, they turn out to be more human than we are. Like three strangers who meet on a train and have only a few hours to connect before parting ways forever, in a short time, these characters come to love each other as deeply as life-long companions. They reveal everything. They are already broken beyond repair, and are freed of the need to prove their worth to others.

The premise of this show—that these characters are thrown here as the flotsam and jetsam of death—reminds me of Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the twentieth century. “We are thrown into the world,” he says. We don’t emerge from a tradition, since traditions have broken down. We are not a part of an eternal and orderly fabric created by an all-knowing God, because that God is dead. And in His place is a God that Walter Wink, an American theologian, tells us is trapped in a cage by the brokenness of creation. God made this world, but God is not its master. When we pray, we rattle God’s cage; we wake him up, call on him to break himself free.

Mitchell: “God made man in His own image. What if that included His rage? And His spite. And His indifference. And His cruelty. What if God made us too? We’re all his children, you see. God’s a bit of a bastard. Look at us both. Covered in other people’s blood and talking about morality.”

In this world where we cannot call on God the all-knowing, God the arbiter of right and wrong, our actions take precedence. We act out our love for one another; we rescue each other from the ends of the earth with our compassion. God is found in these moments of grace, as when Sister Helen Préjean says to the condemned prisoner when he’s about to be executed in the movie Dead Man Walking: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

As when the character Mitchell crosses into Purgatory to rescue Annie and bring her back, not to the world of the living, but back into the knot of love that binds the three friends together, like blood vessels intertwined—warm, pulsing and enveloping.

Or like the eternal Celtic knot of love, loyalty and friendship. The ghost, the vampire and the werewolf are cold out there on the edge of the world, but they are transformed by their humanity, which, it turns out, is no longer about being biologically human, or even alive in the usual sense. It is an ineffable connection that emerges as more than the sum of all its parts.

Maybe I should write a letter to Toby Whithouse, the creator of this show, to thank him for showing me that television can be a platform for such a courageous art form. I was raised on a steady diet of American commercial television, with a little CBC and BBC thrown in.  American TV can rarely, if ever,  match programs like Being Human, which despite a small budget,  has wonderful script writing, carefully designed sets, and is permeated with a sense of the importance of nurturing the humanity of its characters as well as the audience. Little, if anything, that appears in the show is there by accident. Every prop, costume element and relationship serves a purpose.

Having read bell hooks, I learned to critique American mainstream television, which seems to be afflicted by an inability to move beyond certain racial tropes that it plays out again and again. For example, the African-American as confidante to the white protagonist; the African American who has special spiritual powers (e.g. Guinan in Star Trek, played by Whoopi Goldberg); the tendency to kill off African-American characters within the opening moments of many programs; the African-American as criminal. The total absence of Arab (or Arab-seeming) characters who are not terrorists.  The repeated rape and/or murder of women and the the avenging these crimes, without any sense of pushing back against the source of the violence. The endlessly-repeated theme of redemptive violence permeates pretty much everything:

“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.

According to this myth, life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.” – Walter Wink

Lack of attention is part of the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of attending to the other, you attack the other. Instead of risking disorder, you preserve certainty by deferring to the violence that ensures security and predictability. You never attend to the disorderly facts of real life and their meaning.

This lack of attention is at the heart of a great many American TV programs. Instead of creating detail and having deference for a unique story and characters, there is formula: each episode the same as the last. The triumph of order over chaos, safety over danger, again and again. Simple and dumb, in the sense of being unable to speak to the heart.

Outside of the borders of the myth of redemptive violence, we find a wealth of stories, like those of Being Human, tracing acts of courage and love. They are so numerous they cannot be contained. We find these stories on television, in theatres, in books, on the stage, on canvas, in galleries, music halls, churches, temples—everywhere.  Small acts of love that need only to be noticed in order for them to become miracles.

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship

A visit to Pass Control

This morning I went to Pass Control. I waited in line until the commissionaire called me forward on his intercom. He pushed open a metal drawer, where I placed my forms and ID. He closed the drawer and did the paperwork to get me a temporary pass, which he slid into the metal drawer. I took the card and sat back in my seat. A little while later, an old gentleman in uniform came to the entrance and called out “Pass Control! Anyone for Pass Control?” I got up and went with him. We passed through two sets of security doors, turned right, and then passed through another door. It had a Men’s Washroom sign on it. I was starting to feel a little nervous. Once through the Men’s Washroom door, we walked past the men’s and women’s washrooms and arrived at an elevator. Then we went down, down, down until we reached Pass Control. The old man left me there and I took a number. On a bulletin board nearby were posters advertising wanted men and posters offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of a variety of murderers and kidnappers. It was called the Military Police board. When my number was called, the clerk said “No. You need the person whose name is on this card (she handed me a business card) to approve this other person’s signature.” Back to my seat to wait for the elderly man in uniform, then up, up, up, and through the Men’s Washroom door, back out through the security doors and into the line-up. I slid my temporary pass once again into the metal drawer, got back my own ID and left the building.