The Emergence of the Past

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately.

This likely comes as no real surprise to many of you – especially those of you who remember my frequent posts about the First World War when I was a tour guide in France last year. But now instead of thinking about memorials that we construct to deliberately remember the past, I’m thinking of the ways that the past has of surfacing back into our lives. My current fascination is also a much more recent past – namely the period from roughly 1989-1992 when the Iron Curtain came down and the USSR fell to pieces.

There are two major differences between that period and the First World War that I’ve been dwelling on. First, it is still very much a lived past – there are plenty of people alive today who remember it. It happened in my own lifetime, though my life had only just begun at that point, so I have no memory of it. What also strikes me is that instead of widespread physical devastation triggered by a breakdown in international relations (to vastly oversimplify a complex topic like the start of the First World War) there was a breakdown of an idea.

Of course, I am not denying that the Soviet breakdown happened without violence – it too exacted a physical price from those who lived it. But by and large it was the product of entire societies coming to the conclusion that the idea upon which their lives had been built wasn’t working. The calamitous changes of the First World War forced European societies to change, whether they wanted to or not. But in 1989 it was the status quo which prompted European societies to seek political and economic change on a massive scale. To vastly oversimplify a complex topic like the end of the Cold War.

Which leads me to the question: when we decide as a group to bring about the end of an era, where does that era go? Specifically, what happens to all the physical, material evidence of that era? The answer, as I have discovered, is that it stays for years.


Above is a picture from the Ecseri Flea Market in Budapest. That market is full of odds and ends from the Soviet past. Hundreds (if not thousands) of old pins and badges. Flags, portraits, and busts of Lenin of varying kinds. Uniforms, and boots and helmets. Bins full of old family photos, with the red star or the hammer and sickle somewhere in the background, or on parade, or pinned to a youth’s Pioneer uniform. Alongside all the other wonderful and bizarre detritus that has a tendency to make its way into flea markets.

Teddy bears and Lenin. These go in the same category, right?

Teddy bears and Lenin. These go in the same category, right?

Of course, this period is hardly unique for reminding us of itself in our daily lives. The trenches and craters of the First World War are still visible today. Shrapnel and undetonated ordnances come up through the earth so regularly that farmers have a name for it – they call it the Iron Harvest. Not to mention that train stations and airports in that area often have specific rules in place about carrying such things in your luggage (the rule is: don’t). Where the trenches used to be, the past emerges by becoming unburied. Here in Budapest, it tends to emerge as an assorted clutter of artefacts and curiosities – scattered across flea markets and antique stores, and most likely also in attics, basements and old cupboards and drawers in people’s homes.

I suppose it has me thinking about the difference between remembrance and reminders. Sometimes we deliberately set ourselves up to remember – we have monuments, museums, and days of commemoration. Sometimes, the past simply comes into our lives and reminds us of itself, whether we really want it to or not. The former can be complicated because it begs the question of how one ought best to remember and commemorate past trauma. But the latter is not necessarily easier – after all, what exactly does one do with all of it?

I’m certain loads of this kind of memorabilia simply gets thrown out at some point, which says something about the sheer volume of it that exists in the world, given how much of it still turns up for sale. It’s an odd phenomenon, to be sure.

And sometimes, it's merely odd.

And sometimes, it’s merely odd.


Sexuality and Rights: A Brief Overview


Have I got your attention? Good. Sit down. It’s time we had ‘The Talk’.

There are two very important things you should know. You are human, and that means you have human rights. You are human, and that also means you have a sexuality.

Here’s how they fit together.

  1. Everybody has a sexuality, but not everyone has the same sexuality.
  1. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has the right to life, and the right to the highest attainable level of mental and physical health during that life.
  1. If someone tries to repress your sexuality, they are depriving you of the full enjoyment of your human rights. If you do the same to someone else, you are depriving them of the same.
  1. Sexuality is not a physical characteristic, but it is a fundamental aspect of each person. Discrimination based on a non-visible characteristic like sexuality is on par with discrimination based on a visible trait like gender or skin colour.

That’s it. Those are the basics. They may sound obvious, but recent events have led me to the conclusion that a lot of us could be reminded. There are a lot of misconceptions about how sexuality and rights work together in the world right now. Two recent events in particular are useful in illustrating the above basics.

Event Number One: Ontario’s Updated Sex Ed Curriculum

You may have heard that the Ontario provincial government has significantly updated the sex education portion of the curriculum. Given that this particular topic had not been updated since 1998, this was long overdue. In addition to all the standard fare (the reproductive cycle, the mechanics of heterosexual sex, sexual hygiene and safety) children will now learn about the following topics over the course of their twelve years of public schooling: consent, LGBT sexualities, the characteristics of (and interpersonal skills needed for) healthy relationships, the management of privacy and online communication.

Want more information? Check out the curriculum yourself – it’s right here.

The problem: a significant number of parents withdrew their children from school as a manner of protesting the curriculum. They believe the curriculum interferes with their rights – specifically the parental rights involved in raising a child. Religious and moral rights are also frequently cited.

The reality: parental rights and religious or moral rights are both valid kinds of rights. However, as mentioned above, the children also have rights – the right to life and health. Their best possible chance at growing up at ease with their own sexuality, whatever it may be, and of respecting that of others and having theirs respected, is by being educated on it. Their best possible chance at expressing that sexuality and engaging in relationships in a healthy and consensual manner is by being educated, along with their peers, on what healthy and consensual relationships look like.

Being deprived of information on this topic can adversely affect the quality of their entire life, and that effect can also spread to their peers.

I cannot accept the proposition that parental rights trump the human rights of the child in this matter. Too much is at stake.

To the parents who object because I’ve never been a parent: I may not be a parent, but at twenty-five years of age I have come to realize how late I was in learning about consent and sexuality. It took me years too long to truly understand the connection between the words ‘sex’ and ‘relationship’ and as for consent…well, my public school years were behind me by the time I was starting to understand my rights in that field. I would have given anything to have learned sooner.

To those who oppose the new curriculum: see numbers 1-4, above.

Do the right thing. Let them learn about how to live healthy, fulfilled lives.

Respect their human rights.

Event Number Two: The Irish Marriage Equality Referendum

Today is the day that Ireland votes on marriage equality. I think by now it’s obvious where this talk is going.

Where voting matters are concerned I usually say I don’t care what you vote for, I care that you vote. It’s not my right to tell someone who to support.

This isn’t one of those times. I care very much how you vote, because human rights are not a voting matter. It is not within any of our rights to say that one marriage is less valid than the other just because the partners involved have a few more physical characteristics in common than the heterosexual majority. What an absurd and arbitrary distinction. Heterosexual-only marriage laws are going the way of miscegenation laws, and they cannot go that way rapidly enough.

Regarding the referendum I can only say this: while I completely disagree that this is an appropriate topic for a referendum, I will be immensely proud of Ireland if they turn out to be the first country to approve marriage equality by popular vote.

If they reject it, I can only mourn the devastating setback for rights in their country.

To those who oppose marriage equality: see numbers 1-4, above.

Do the right thing. Vote, Ireland, and vote for human rights.

That’s it.

Glad we had this talk.

Rainbow flag

Reviewsday Tuesday: Little Brother (is Big Brother for the 21st Century)

“I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.”

– Marcus Yallow in Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

So begins Little Brother, written by Cory Doctorow. This book is among the best (possibly the best) stories I’ve read this year. It is also the most important book I’ve read in a long time.

Little_Brother Title

The premise: seventeen year old narrator Marcus Yallow, along with a few of his friends, is in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists strike San Francisco. They are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and brought to an unknown location for interrogation. Once released, Marcus finds that his country has become a police state. The level of surveillance described is not dystopian – it is a disturbingly plausible portrait of the USA in the immediate future. The setting of this story is only a few panicked steps removed from where we are today.

There is much to discuss here, but let me focus on a few key themes.

First: the language of security theatre. Immediately after the attacks, security cameras are introduced to San Francisco classrooms. To prevent litigation, a permission slip is distributed to the students.

“The law said they couldn’t force us to go to school with cameras all over the place, but it didn’t say anything about us volunteering to give up our Constitutional rights. The letter said that the Board was sure that they would get complete compliance from the city’s parents, but that they would make arrangements to teach those kids whose parents objected in a separate set of “unprotected” classrooms.”

– Marcus Yallow, in Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

The letter does two things. First, the Board’s assurance of ‘complete compliance’ implies that any reasonable person would sign. Second, the word ‘unprotected’ suggests that any parent who objects is not interested in the safety of their children. This letter pre-emptively shames any parents hesitant about security cameras by portraying them as unreasonable, even negligent parents. This is precisely how security theatre works – it imposes measures that don’t increase security (how are cameras in classrooms going to prevent future terrorist acts?) but delegitimizes any protest before anyone has the opportunity to voice it.

Second theme: the ineffectiveness of excessive surveillance. The DHS goes to incredible lengths to track the movements of the city – they monitor transit passes, fast-passes on vehicles going over toll bridges, bank card usage…anything that creates a digital trace. The local police are enlisted to locate and question anyone whose usage patterns are statistically ‘abnormal’ – whether or not that person is of interest to any ongoing investigation. They needlessly detain thousands of people, generally obstruct daily life in the city, and come up with no useful information.

Pictured: security. Photo source: "No photography guard tower" by Lance Cognolatti -  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Pictured: security.
Photo source: “No photography guard tower” by Lance Cognolatti – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Finally, what struck me most was that after the initial attack, hardly any mention is made of the (presumably) ongoing investigation to find the people responsible for the attack. The story revolves around state measures against citizens who object to or attempt to circumvent heavy surveillance – not about state measures against suspected criminals. The disjunction between the initial attack and the subsequent security measures is at times so severe that they feel unrelated to one another. One has the impression that the attack is being used as a pretext to justify long-planned extensions of authority for the DHS. One could even suggest the lack of an obvious perpetrator is politically useful to them – a population is more likely to submit to intrusive measures against an unknown ‘them’ who may be among their midst. Identifying the enemy risks finding them dead, imprisoned, or outside one’s borders – how then to justify internal surveillance?

Bottom line: read Little Brother. If you don’t know much about coding and online privacy, you’ll learn lots. Seriously – Marcus is the type of coder who can explain what he’s doing to those around him, and by extension to the reader. If you think you don’t care about the connection between online privacy and national security measures, this book will convince you otherwise. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to put it down and will power through it in no time at all.

So go forth and question security theatre. Also, if you have read it and also have a spare copy of Homeland, the sequel to this book…lend it to me? It recently made it to the top of my to-read list.

Reading this has probably landed you on some kind of watch list.

Reading this has probably landed you on some kind of watch list.

Brutal Monuments for Complex Memories

Public monuments have power. They can be large or small, extravagant or minimalistic. They can be beautiful, inspiring, moving and tragic. Which is why it’s so important that we take care when engaging in acts of collective memory. A poorly executed monument can be offensive, trivializing, ugly and upsetting.

More importantly, once you set up a public monument the public can – and will – interact with it. They found this out rapidly last summer in Budapest when they set up a new memorial to the victims of the German occupation. It’s rather small in an ill-conceived location, directly on the edge of a road so that traffic continually blocking it. It looks kind of shoddy, which I suppose is what you get when you build your memorials in the dead of night. Hint: if your memorial is the sort of thing that has to be built under cover of darkness and under guard from the police – don’t. It has been called a ‘forgery of history’.

If you can get a picture of it from the right angle (and don’t know what’s being portrayed) it looks semi-decent, mostly because its true size is unclear and its location isn’t obvious:

If this picture was more honest there'd be a blurry car in front of that angel.

If this picture was more honest there’d be a blurry car in front of that angel.

Not great, but not the end of the world. Of course, it being a public monument and there being a public willing to express how they felt about it, it ended up more like this:

Hint: the armed and uniformed men are not an honour guard.

Hint: the armed and uniformed men are not an honour guard.

Now imagine if a poorly thought-out monument took up the space of an entire city block, on land which had been designated for a federal court building but had been quietly re-distributed. Picture a structure designed to appear just as brutal as the events it is meant to commemorate, towering over the visitors to the site.

You’re probably picturing the planned Canadian memorial to the Victims of Communism. In case you weren’t, allow me to assist you:

With mood lighting to guarantee that even the dark won't spare your eyes!

With mood lighting to guarantee that even the dark won’t spare your eyes!

I won’t go into detail with the problematic location in the parliamentary district of Ottawa, next door to the Supreme Court. That’s been covered here, and elsewhere extensively.
I won’t discuss the lack of transparency and the obvious partisanship behind the choice of design and location, discussed extensively here.
I can’t address all of the numerous issues with this monument here, but let me discuss just a few.

First of all, the group behind this project (Tribute to Liberty – don’t even get me started on their name) claims that this monument will commemorate “100 million lives lost under communist regimes”. Numbers like that are problematic in this context. Quantifying victimization is always difficult – even with the extensive records recovered from the Holocaust we still say the total victims comprised an estimated 11 million, of which an estimated 6 million were Jewish. These are educated estimates and likely (horrifyingly) close to the mark. But to try and quantify something as diffuse and enduring as the victims of an ideology that dominated huge portions of the globe for about half a century? Without even admitting that your number may not be precise? That’s a hard sell.

As well, by focusing on ‘lives lost’ we trivialize the fact that totalitarian regimes need not kill a person to victimize them. What of the survivors? Moreover, what of the victims of totalitarian regimes that didn’t claim to be communist?

Second of all, I struggle with the idea of a monument to this scale for events which happened half a world away. It seems to me that if we must have a memorial to the victims of Communism at all (and I’m not convinced that we should) we could be more modest about our own role and more sensitive to the complexity of history. Can we be so strident in our monuments, given our role in the Cold War? We (sort of) refused to interact with (most) Communist countries and were (slightly) less paranoid at home than the USA under McCarthy. We were the experts of the strongly-worded but non-interventionist moral stand.

This is what jumped to mind when I saw the design for the memorial. I wish I was joking.

This is what jumped to mind when I saw the design for the memorial. I wish I was joking.

Finally, to return to the idea of picking and choosing who we remember: there are going to be names of specific victims on this monument. How are those names going to be chosen? You can choose one yourself! That is, as long as the suggested name is accompanied with a $1000 donation. That’s right. The best way to choose victims of a regime which oppressed them by denying them their property and often the bare minimum of resources necessary to keep them alive is by choosing the ones whose descendants can afford it. Good thing this was advertised in a tasteful manner.

No wait, actually it wasn’t.

The implication being that if you didn’t donate in time, the world will forget the suffering your loved one endured under communism? Smooth move, Tribute to Liberty.

And of course, the moment this thing is erected the public is going to interact with it. Remember the Budapest memorial? With a structure this large, having generated this much controversy, not accounting for what people might do with it is a serious gamble.

How much to make them give up on this awful idea, I wonder?

Would it be enough to stop you before it's too late?

Would it be enough to stop you before it’s too late?

Reviewsday Tuesday: Runspiration and The Oatmeal

I haven’t done a Reviewsday Tuesday in so long that probably most of you don’t remember what it is. It’s what it sounds like – on Tuesday I review a thing. Normally a book, because it’s me we’re talking about. Not every Tuesday (we all know my track record with regular posts) but sometimes it does happen.

So without any further ado, let me introduce to you one of the more recent additions to my book collection: The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances


This book is the print version of one of my favourite webcomics by Matthew Inman (aka ‘The Oatmeal’). It introduces us to a demonic character known as The Blerch:

the Blerch

To quote The Oatmeal:

The Blerch is a fat little cherub who follows me when I run
He is a wretched, lazy beast.
He tells me to slow down, to walk, to quit.
“Blerch” is the sound food makes when it is squeezed from a tube.
“Blerch” is the shape of my tummy after a huge meal.
If I am sedentary at a time when I have zero excuse for being sedentary
I call this “blerching.”
The Blerch represents all forms of gluttony, apathy, and indifference that plague my life.

I think we can all relate to this feeling. The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances is a comic that resonates because it puts into words the hilariously painful reasons why I and countless others have spent so much of our lives on the run. Given my recent injury history it also is about why my rage at having a useless foot was about so much more than a stress fracture and the inconvenience of a cast. Because The Blerch feeds on all the stresses life throws your way, whatever their form. For example:

I can still do low-impact exercise while injured. I should go to the gym. 

Quoth the Blerch: "It's too uncomfortable to exercise with an injured foot anyway!"

Quoth the Blerch: “It’s too uncomfortable to exercise with an injured foot anyway!”

School has me so busy, when am I going to have time to shop for and cook some decent food?!

More snacks Blerch

Quoth the Blerch: You won’t! Just order pizza or eat convenience store snacks instead!

I don’t know how to handle my stress about job prospects and student debt.

Quoth the Blerch: HAHAHAH YOU NEVER WILL. Give up now and watch TV instead! Don't forget the snacks!

Quoth the Blerch: HAHAHAH YOU NEVER WILL. Give up now and watch TV instead! Don’t forget the snacks!

But the important thing to take away from all of this is the following (to quote the Oatmeal again):

The Blerch, however, can be outrun.
He CAN be silenced.

I keep my print version of this comic easily accessible in my room. Because when things get tough, it’s good to have a reminder that they can be overcome. It’s been becoming easier to remember as my recovery has progressed, but like anyone, I sometimes need a reminder.

So wherever you are and whatever your own Blerch is telling you, don’t forget it can be beaten.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you meander over to The Oatmeal’s website to look at the many excellent things he’s written and drawn – he deserves more than a little love for the excellent content he creates. Plus you can read all about the Blerch yourself for free! Doesn’t get much better than that.

Meanwhile, I think I'll just step out and do some Blerch-defeating of my own.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll just step out and do some Blerch-defeating of my own.

Breathe it out (or shout it)

So here’s a piece of terrifying news: it is March. Already.

If there is a student at this point in the semester who doesn’t greet that news with a sense of mounting anxiety (and possibly breaking into a cold sweat) they’re probably lying. Midterms are either in progress or they just passed and students are awaiting sentencing results. Essay deadlines are looming. Readings are piling up. Finals are on the horizon. For many, summer prospects are an unresolved and frankly frightening loose end.

I apologize to any whose blood pressure went up in reading the previous paragraph. As I wrote I could feel an all-too familiar tension creep up into my shoulders – the one that makes me so tense and tight it’s as if my shoulders connect directly to the base of my skull, with no neck between them.

Most of you know by now that to deal with this I like to run. So it’s no surprise to you that my stress-fracture-induced hiatus from running has been more than mere inconvenience. Even now that I am recovering my running ability is still extremely limited. So lately I’ve been turning to yoga instead. It’s not difficult to see why that would be the case; an activity known for emphasizing focus on breath, soft lighting and the setting aside of intrusive thoughts seems ideally suited to stressful periods.

The only problem? It’s at precisely these periods that I become spectacularly bad at the part where I set aside those intrusive thoughts. And so my sun salutations involve a lot less meditation and a lot more silent worry posing as tranquility. I call it the Worrier Pose (see what I did there, fellow yogis?)

The Worrier Pose:

Inhale. Did I answer that email from my prof?
Exhale. I should really start writing that essay when I get home tonight.
Inhale and reach up. I still haven’t finished researching that other essay though.
Exhale, bend forward. Crap, did I do readings for class tomorrow?
Inhale, flat back. Whatever, I’ll skim the intro and conclusion and fake the rest. Then start that essay.
Exhale bend forward. When was the last time I did laundry?
Walk or step feet back to plank. Have I done groceries this week?
Lower down, then up into upward dog. What dog were they looking at when they named this one?
Push back into downward dog. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog hold this pose for as long as people do. 

Not zen at all.

So last week I went to a class that called itself Neuro Yoga. The class description said something about emphasis on breath (they all do) and positive affirmations. I envisioned a darkened quiet room, sitting cross-legged and intoning nice things about ourselves and the universe in unison. I got a well-lit room, music and shouting affirmations at the universe while holding a plank pose. In unison.

There is something beautifully cathartic about struggling to convince your abs to hold on for just a few moments longer while you scream at nobody in particular that you are brilliant and overcoming all obstacles.
I haven’t felt so at peace in ages.

It did make me wonder though – how did we all get to the point where we had so much bottled up inside us that we needed to shout to release it? It’s not just students who feel this way. As far as I can tell, it’s everyone. Which is why this Washington Post article about exhaustion not being a status symbol feels especially on point right now. The work culture we all participate in is not doing our minds or bodies any favours.

I’m hardly breaking new ground when I say that this ought to change. But I’d like to take this moment to remind everyone that just because it hasn’t changed yet doesn’t mean we can’t pause and look after ourselves right now. In fact, if we all collectively start taking time out of our work lives to release the stress and fear it makes us feel, I’d say change is well underway.

So wherever you are, remember to do this one thing today. Not for me, but for you. Breathe, or shout, or run, or do whatever it is you do that will release how you’re feeling. Really do it – don’t just go through the motions of the Worrier Pose. Push back at the way the universe is making you feel right now. Believe me, the universe can take it. In fact, it will probably be better off for the honesty – even if that honesty is being shouted in its face and not peacefully chanted by a zenned-out yogi.

An Important Moment – The Right to (End) Life

On Friday my Facebook status linked to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Carter v Canada (Attorney General) with the following comment: “SCC rejects the prohibition on doctor-assisted death in specific cases – unanimously, no less. This is an important moment in our legal history.”

The choice in words was deliberate, in that I avoided language which would imply I thought the decision was either good or bad. It had only just been published and I needed time to read it, and time to think. In principle I felt I would agree, but I needed to know first what I might be agreeing to. Yet while that was happening I couldn’t just let it pass and give no indication that I had noticed it. It was, as I had commented, important.

For those unaware of Carter v Canada, it concerns Canada’s blanket prohibition on physician-assisted suicide and asks whether such prohibition violates a person’s right to life, liberty and security of the person under s.7 of the Charter. This case specifically concerned the rights of persons with “a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” This is not a new debate. In the early 90s the Court found our blanket prohibition constitutional. On Friday they reversed that position, citing changed legal and social conditions, and gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation before the nullification of the current law takes effect.

Reading the decision has given me a clearer understanding what the Court was about, but has not reduced the internal tension I feel in the face of it. It is possible to agree that one should seek a balance between the important goal of protecting vulnerable persons from pressure to end their lives, and allowing fully competent but suffering persons access to this choice. It is equally possible to believe that the availability of a choice will prevent desperate turns to more violent methods of suicide out of fear of future degradation and pain.

But I worry about the mechanism by which we seek that balance.

The Court raises the repeated discussion of the decriminalization of physician-assisted suicide in Parliament over the past two decades. They point out the emergence of multiple jurisdictions permitting physician-assisted suicide since they considered the issue in Rodriguez. They point out the abundant evidence from those jurisdictions that proper regulation and safeguards are entirely possible. I can accept their conclusion that it is possible to mitigate risks and that a well-regulated system could provide a valuable social good that we currently lack. What I doubt is the wisdom of forcing such an important change with a one-year deadline.

The paradox to me is this: I do not believe our current government would have voluntarily changed the law nor can I be certain that the change would have occurred in my lifetime without the ruling. Yet now that the ruling has come I wonder if the suddenness of it introduces new risks where the quality of the law is concerned. No legislative regime can negate all of the shades of gray and risks in this area. But would we have a better chance of minimizing them if we went about it more slowly? Or would the cost of moving slowly outweigh the benefit of pushing it to happen sooner?

I am certain my view on this case will evolve – and hopefully become more settled – as the longer-term effects play out. In the meantime, I will say this. Despite my questions surrounding the mechanism of movement, I tend to think we have moved in the right direction. I am especially supportive of the fact that the ruling was unanimous. With such an important issue at stake, the presence of multiple concurring or dissenting opinions would only have further clouded the issue and complicated the task of drafting balanced and effective legislation.

For now I will continue to read and think on the issue. No doubt I will have further thoughts when new laws are drafted. Until then, those of you that are also reading and thinking on this are welcome to weigh in with your take on the issue.