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Monthly Archives: October 2015

The other day, I put up my Halloween mask. In the comments, Noel suggest that I not add any more. Well, I didn’t on mine, but my sister phoned and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s an architect. He probably thinks ‘less is more.’ I want bling!”

Sissy wants bling, then Sissy gets bling!

Halloween mask with rhinestones

Now here’s another part of the costume. I’ll leave all of you to guess what part.

Small blue lights

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On Sunday, my mother and I went to go see “Bridge of Spies.” Most of the reviews are positive. The few negative reviews seem to be from people who were expecting an action picture, so I’ll get that out of the way before I review the movie on its own terms. It is a true story about a lawyer who defends a Soviet citizen living in the United States and accused by the United States of spying. It’s about justice and principles in a realistic way. If you’re in the mood for a tense spy thriller with a little bit of action, this is not the movie for you.

“Bridge of Spies” felt to me to be a direct descendent of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 film about a naive man who becomes a U.S. senator and confronts corruption in Washington. The plots and the characters have little in common. The lawyer, James B. Donovan is a wealthy and worldly man from New York City, a partner in a prestigious law firm, a graduate of Harvard Law and a former naval officer who was an assistant during the Nuremberg trials. A few of the summaries say that the character, played by Tom Hanks, is a just and insurance lawyer, but I think the film establishes pretty well that he is not “just” an insurance lawyer. When he enters his office, we clearly see the name “Donovan” on the door. The office itself looks well-appointed and the army of secretaries are highly deferential. There is a reference to his role in Nuremberg. Like the viewers who think all spy movies have explosions and chase scenes, perhaps some people missed these cues because they are used to seeing everyone in movies living and working in expensive environments that we all know are not realistic. The indications that Donovan was a respected and accomplished lawyer who had settled into a slightly boring routine were there to me.

What James B. Donovan, Esq. and the humble Mr. Smith have in common is a firm belief in the principles undergirding liberal democracy. This, not espionage, is the subject of the movie. Like Mr. Smith, Donovan engages in some speechifying to that effect, and like Mr. Smith his adversaries are other Americans. In this case, they are other Americans who believe they are acting in the interests of he United States but who do not have his faith in liberal principles. The main antagonists in the movie are not the Soviet diplomat or East German official, played by Sebastian Koch, but the FBI agents and other lawyers who wish to advance American interests and do so with significantly fewer scruples.

Unlike Mr. Smith, Donovan does not achieve his ends through such speeches. He seemingly convinces no one. A sophisticated man, not a naive dreamer, he succeeds through subtle and persistent interpersonal interactions, not through force of his argument.

It’s a movie with a political argument at its heart. I’m afraid the movie may be poorly served by the title and poster. It has zero sex that I can recall and almost no violence. Even the interrogation scenes were done an a manner that an older child could watch. If the children are old enough to be interested in the subject, by all means bring them.

It is a timely film. At a moment when liberal democracies once again find themselves opposed by international forces that do not share our values, it is a good reminder about the necessity of sticking to those values, and that one can succeed while doing so. Abiding by those values does not mean you’re weak; it means you’re strong.

I suppose some acknowledgement should be made that the Canadians are having an election today. I should probably wait until the results are in, but I’m up to my eyes in costume making and might not have a chance later.

As I’m sure the world is well aware, this is the longest election campaign since 1872. Currently, it’s a competitive three-way race between Conservative Party with Stephen Harper, the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau, and the New Democratic Party headed by Thomas Mulcair. “Conservative” and “Liberal” should be self-explanatory. “The New Democratic” party is a social democratic party slightly to the left of the Liberal Party.

I haven’t followed Canadian politics too closely in recent years, so I don’t have anything particularly useful to add I’m afraid. The most interesting development for me is the return to prominence of the New Democratic Party which was all but non-existant when I lived there. The collapse of the Bloc Quebecois in 2011 makes the Canadian political terrain one with which I am no longer very familiar. In retrospect, that was not especially surprising because much of the population of Quebec leans towards the left. Although I couldn’t vote when I lived there, as someone married to a Canadian who, at the time, expected that I would be raising children there, I supported the Parti Quebecois’ plan on getting religion out of the schools. If a social democratic alternative to the Parti Quebecois which supported a secular society had existed, I probably would have supported it. Now that the New Democratic Party is a viable alternative, I’m not surprised many people in Quebec are taking it on the federal level. According to the Montreal Gazette, however, the support in Quebec for the NDP has declined this year and much of Quebec is up for grabs.

Not much sense in dwelling on this right now since we shall know soon enough.

Update: I’m streaming Radio Canada while I work. For those who are interested: http://ici.radio-canada.ca/resultats-elections-canada-2015/

mask more progress

Now I need to make a silver one for my sister. My sister’s will probably be better since I think I’ve gotten a little better with the technique. This is my first time making a mask. Considering that I was making it up as I went along, I’m pretty satisfied with the result. The gold is imitation gold leaf. I put a coat of acrylic gesso over the traditional gesso so the whole thing doesn’t melt if there’s a light rain. Needless to say, it wouldn’t hold up in a down pour.

I’m tempted to do a bit more embellishment, but we’re on a countdown until the big day. I’ll probably wait to put on some varnish in case I decide to add more. Originally I thought I’d add some rhinestones and glitter, but at the moment I’m thinking it looks sufficient as is and I should spend time on the rest of the costume.

A few months ago I ordered a DNA test kit. It arrived quickly and has been sitting on my coffee table ever since. It’s one of those things that I’ve been wanting to do ever since these sorts of tests have become widely available. I really want to pretend it’s just idle curiosity, yet after it arrived I found that I felt some anxiety about the outcome. There are several companies which offer such tests. I decided to get the one from National Geographic, partly because it appeals to my nerdy side, but also it help me maintain a sense that this is an academic exercise. Yet it would be futile to deny the fact that a large part of my interest is related to wanting to know my ethnic background.

It sounded like an interesting idea when I ordered the test. Then suddenly, it seemed as if everything everywhere was about race, race, race, wherever I turned. I don’t know if we are have a major cultural change regarding our attitudes towards race or if it’s just one of those waves, almost like an intellectual or conversational fad, that washes through society from time to time. Suddenly, the ethnic, racial or ancestral portion of my identity wasn’t the private matter I always thought it was, but seemed to be a public question. Although no one was asking me in particular, it’s been floating in the zeitgeist.

So, now I’m sitting here waiting for an hour to elapse because I foolishly made myself a cup of coffee before sitting down to finally open the box. Inside the box there was a sleek-looking booklet with the kind of photos you expect from National Geographic about the “human story.” Well, it’s good to know that at least that part of my identity won’t change. Or maybe it will. The test might tell me I’m part Neanderthal.

Besides the glossy booklet, there’s some instructions and a consent form. The first instruction is to not eat or drink for an hour. Then you are supposed to scrape the side of your cheek with a swab, put the tip of the swab in a vial and send it back to the company. The box, the vials and the consent form all have a sticker with a code number affixed to them.

I thought it might be interesting to write about this. Since one of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I do not know what my ethnic background is, I thought it might be interesting to start writing before knowing the answer. According to the instructions, it can take ten weeks for the results. During that time, I might do a series of posts about race, ethnicity and identity with this particular context in mind.

This test looks at autosomal and mitochondrial DNA, and for men it can look at the Y-Chromosome DNA. The Y-Chromosome traces the direct paternal line whereas the mitochondrial DNA can trace the direct maternal line. This is a little bit of a disappointment for me since I have zero knowledge about my biological father. The direct maternal line is one of the few things I currently know. Unless oral history is incorrect, that should be traceable to England.

More on this later.

Right now, I’m up to me eyebrows in thread, rhinestones, fabric, trimmings and all sorts of other goodies to make an outrageously wonderful Halloween costume. Or maybe just a big hot mess. Who knows. I’ve been having a problem getting the thread tension right. We’re not talking a little off and the fabric is puckering. This is so loose that you can just pull the threads out by hand. My sister said, as she has said a couple of times a year for the past several years, “Just buy a new sewing machine.” I might do that. The main reason I haven’t already is mostly sentimentality. This was my mother’s sewing machine.

Closeup of the needle and presser foot on an old singer sewing machine.My mother received this portable sewing machine for her thirteenth birthday. It was used when my grandparents bought it for her. We’ve sewn so many things on it.

I’ll try to remember to pause for some photos so I can post the progress on my costume.

In an aggressive headline, Hanna Yusuf tells ethnic Britons who believe that the judging of the Great British Bake Off was not impartial to leave the United Kingdom. The biggest problem with call-out culture is not necessarily the ideas behind it but the need to ratchet all the rhetoric up until the needle is hitting the red part of the dial. At that point, distortion sets in. However, in our social media driven world, people respond. It’s an emotion laden call to the barricades that divides the entire world into those who are with the speaker and those who are against. I had done nothing other than read the headline and I was already angry at Yusuf although until this morning I’d never even heard of the Great British Bake Off. (Brits can cook? Who knew?)

This kind of writing has become all too common. I guess it must sell. I suspect strongly that reading it is like doing drugs. It gives you a jolt, a sort of high, when you read it, but more than occasional indulgence in outrage is probably bad for your health. It’s also bad for your intellect.

It’s definitely incongruous that I, of all people, should be annoyed by Yusuf’s article. Throughout my life I’ve always enjoyed diverse environments. So often I’ve found myself in them that I must subconsciously seek them out. I’ve seen enough situations in which a white person who has been accused of racism tries to prove they are not racist by pointing out that they have black friends and has been mocked for the statement that I’m fully aware of the social faux pas of stating that I’ve had a lot of friends of different backgrounds. Still, Yusuf’s argument is that people who didn’t like the results of the Great British Bake Off objected because the finalists are a Muslim woman who appears to be of African ancestry, a gay man whose ancestry I can’t tell from the photo but is apparently not of Celtic, Germanic or Norse ancestry, and a man who appears to be some mix of those aforementioned three ancestral groups most often associated with ethnic Britons. (Honestly, trying to be accurrate about this stuff is really a pain. I don’t what these three people are. Can we get some DNA tests here?) are racists.

My sister has made me watch Project Runway and Top Chef enough times that I have come to learn that people get ridiculously emotional about these contests. Personally, I prefer Project Runway because I can’t judge the food from the appearance.

So, her argument appears to be that the people unhappy about the results are racist and that, because Britain is a diverse society, they should leave the country. As I’ve explained to people elsewhere, “leave the country” is not a reasonable statement – just about ever. Countries have immigration laws. I can’t just move anywhere I like. In fact, at my age I suspect no country would take me unless I were rich. This may be rhetoric which is satisfying for Yusuf to yell, but it is ultimately empty and pointless.

She chooses to ignore the main argument which is fairly important because it’s at the heart of why some people who may like “diversity” might also dislike the results of the contest. I’m not really sure of the rules of the contest, but I’m under the impression that the entries are not judge anonymously. If I understand the correctly, some people feel that the prizes were not awarded to the baker whose work was objectively best, but biased in favor of non-white, not heterosexual or non-Christian contestants. Since I understand little about how this contest is run, I really can’t judge whether or not this belief has any basis in reality.

The trigger for Yusuf’s emotional outburst was a short note in a column in the Daily Mail by Amanda Platell. Looking at what she writes, there is even more irony in the fact that Yusuf triggered an angry emotional reaction in me. I’ve never heard of Amanda Platell before, but, looking at her column, I think we agree on next to nothing.

However, the thing that really annoyed me in Yusuf’s article was that she equated enjoying diversity and being PC. This is a falsehood I’d like to address before it become a truism. As I’ve said, I’ve always enjoyed diverse environments and more than once in my life I’ve found myself being the minority in a group. In fact, I believe I was once invited to join a group to be the token white. I’m perfectly comfortable being in a group that is majority black, majority east Asian, majority Jewish. I name those three because those are the three situations which have been most common in my life.

Being not entirely white, I guess I’ve never actually been in the majority, but I am I identified as white by other people and I’m mostly white and identify more as white than as anything else. I can’t say that I feel any more comfortable when I’m in a room full of people of northern European descent.

Moreover, many of my non-white, non-Christian ancestry friends have, in fact, come from other countries,, as have some of the white ones. Why do I seem to be drawn to foreigners? I’ve asked myself that so many times and I’ve never come up with an answer. My friends used to make fun of me, calling my ex-boyfriends “the United Nations.” Oh, yeah, it was a woman born in Malaysia and a friend who had grown up in Israel that used to say that. I’m fairly sanguine about the idea of the culture changing. Cultures change, with or without immigration. As far as cultural change goes, I’m more bothered by what social media has done to our political discourse than by what foreigners may be bringing here.

At the same time, I am not in the least bit “PC.” In fact, I would say that I am ideologically opposed to the concept of political correctness. The phrase originates from communist, mainly Stalinist, political circles. The Communist Party in the early and mid-twentieth century had positions regarding many political matters that were deemed “correct.” I grew up with enough red diaper babies that I was first familiar with this meaning of the word.

The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance. (Herbert Kohl, quoted in Wikipedia)

As a liberal (and I truly mean liberal, not a leftist pretending to be liberal), I believe freedom of thought of expression must take precedence over other values. Without those, we have no reasonable way of establishing what those other values are to be. Belief in the value of argument does not make me value diversity any less. In fact, it may be one of the reasons I subconsciously seek out situations with diverse participants. What is the value of diversity if we are all to be gagged and prevented from having a free exchange?

Admittedly, Amanda Platell’s six sentence comment about “Poor Flora,” the light-skinned woman who lost in the last round of the Great British Bake Off, is so patently silly it’s hard to criticize without simply repeating it. Yet I might agree with the moniker “Poor Flora.” I don’t know anything about her politics but, she didn’t choose to have light skin; she was born that way. Now, she has the unenviable position of being a football in the culture war.

I confess to being one of those annoying liberals who secretly wants race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and any other category you can think of, to have little to no bearing on a cooking contest. (I was going to say “no bearing” but I remembered on Top Chef a woman won one round making an African peanut stew or soup. Food is a little too connected to culture to eliminate its influence. In fact, if we were really being PC maybe we should give ethnic English a head start, after all, they’re the ones who are handicapped in a cooking contest.)

The damaging thing about Yusuf’s article is that it will persuade no one, but will harden everyone’s positions. By connecting political correctness to diversity, she does a great disservice to diversity. I am an ordinary person in this society. I am not a member of the elite or a thought leader in any way. Yet I consider myself a rational person capable of making my own judgements. I do not want an elite positioned above me telling me what to think and sanctioning me if I say anything that contradicts the established positions. Furthermore, she makes living in a place where everyone is not from the same ethnic background sound about as fun as taking castor oil. Living in a world where we did not all agree and we all talked about it – now that would be real, meaningful diversity.

Yusuf’s article appeared in the Independent. I haven’t linked to it because I suspect that page views and hits are part of what’s driving this race to be louder than the next person. We have a new type of writer that has emerged in recent years. One that does little real research and writes mainly on one topic, preaches to the converted and stokes outrage. Writers like this provide no news. They give no reasoned analysis. They are mainly read by people who agree witht them. The commentary is so predictable, I think I could write an algorithm for it. They divide our societies and make it all but impossible to communicate with people who subscribe to different ideologies. Without this communication, compromise is impossible and politics becomes a battle with a scorched earth policy. Yusuf is well on her way to being another professional hate monger.