"No? Just me? This guy knows what I'm talking about."

The Return of Tragicomix?

When I was an emotionally broken undergraduate, I did a comic for the SFU newspaper, The Peak, called “Tragicomix.” It followed the adventures of a thing I could draw, a cartoon face (things occasionally got as baroque as a stuffed teddy bear missing limbs as he had no right to bear arms). I have not drawn much besides pictures of batman for my daughter in the 15 intervening years, but I decided to do one this afternoon. Please enjoy?


5 Stray thoughts on Day 2 of #NDP2016

1. Rachel Notley’s deeply cynical speech (at least, the second half was) made me despairing not only of the prospects for the NDP, and even Bernie Sanders, but for electoral politics in toto, so… yeah. Blue collar kitsch & sentimentality are poor substitutes for providing workers with alternatives to crash-prone, climate-&-treaty-killing industries. But the same NDPers who’d have been the first to call bullshit if Trudeau or Harper said the sorts of things she did couldn’t get to their feet fast enough to give her ovation after ovation.
2. Melanie Mark was great & made East Vancouver proud with her speech to the convention.
3. Romeo Saganash‘s presentation on building nation-to-nation relationships was terrific, & a tonic after Notley’s depressing pipeline boosterism. I hope he thinks about running again for leader.
4. Stephen Lewis, who used to be on the party’s right, is now definitely on its left, & I’m willing to bet that very little of that movement was on his part. He gave a great speech, and I also noticed that his speaking style is like a combination of Stuart MacLean & Rex Murphy, but with a little bit of Ron James, which makes it kind of fun & pleasant instead of being the worst thing in the world.
5. I was playing hide-&-seek in the hallway with Joséphine when all of a sudden a door opened behind where I was hiding & from it emerged Thomas Mulcair, who is, predictably, on a charm offensive. For those who haven’t been following closely, I am literally only at this convention so that I can vote him out as leader. But he asked me how old Joji was (I think he was impressed by her counting, which is genuinely impressive), & as it turns out he has surprisingly pretty eyes that happened also, in this case, to betray a bit of his desperation & fear about this weekend. He had an underdog look that almost made me want to like him, all of which served as a reminder to me that I am uselessly sentimental & easily led astray myself, & probably shouldn’t have the right to vote anywhere.

March 11, 2016. 25 years.

25 years ago tonight, my mother, Robin, died. She was 39; I was 10; my brother was 7; my father was 35, the same age I am today. It happened at home. It wasn’t entirely a surprise when it happened, but we didn’t know exactly when it was coming. I never said goodbye. I was never conscious of seeing her for the last time. I don’t remember it. Instead, my last memory is of her back, walking towards my parents’ bedroom — sometimes, in the memory, I’m upstairs as she’s walking away, which would make my view of her impossible. It’s almost certainly not an actual memory.
For a quarter century, nearly every single day has had measures of rage, terror, & sadness. The tacit promise made to us, as children — by no one in particular, but by general consensus — was that time, by some sort of geological therapy, would eventually make things easier. The slow, tearing realization that there’s no truth in that assumption was hard enough to accept (a friend in her seventies, who lost her mother when she was just shy of 12, recently wrote me that “Dan Savage doesn’t apply here — it doesn’t get better”). But what I’m realizing, ruefully & with a kind of pitch-dark irony, is that it wasn’t only untrue but the opposite of the truth: time makes it worse. And that makes sense: even a little kid can go 10 minutes without their mother. A day is harder. 9,130 days, with the only promise being more to come, feels next to impossible.
Every year, around this date, I think about it all especially acutely — although I’m pretty much always thinking about it, all the time. For some reason, this year, I keep thinking “It’s been 25 years. If I’d killed somebody, I’d be getting out now.” It’s such a strange thought, & unlike me. But according to David Graeber’s book Debt, ‘the Sumerian word amargi, the first recorded word for “freedom” in any known language, literally means “return to mother.”‘ Maybe this is what’s circling around the penitentiary imagery I can’t shake this time. I have been excluded, since childhood & without any reprieve, from the most ancient conception we have of freedom.
Of course in some ways this doesn’t line up at all with the life that I am living, which is one of comparative material comfort & liberty, a freedom of movement more or less global in range, artistically & professionally satisfying. I get warm attention from strangers for telling jokes on the radio; more importantly, I have friends & comrades, family, a wife, and a daughter who love me. In conceptions both Buddhist & Darwinian, that daughter is partly my mother. So am I.
Life is not a gift, and life is not a sentence. It’s a process containing all of the very worst & best things that happen to people, in totally asymmetrical measure. My politics are based on the ethical principle that we’re responsible, as a society, for countering the asymmetrical dispersal of misery to whatever extent we can. My recent one-man show, written with my friend Marcus Youssef, explored the importance of socialism & social democracy in addressing this obligation. Canadian health care gave me fully half the time I had with my mother, & kept our family from being destroyed financially by her illness & death. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t destroyed.
There’s what society can do. Then there’s what it can’t. I have been angry for 25 years; I have been afraid for 25 years; I have been sad for 25 years. When good things happen, those feelings don’t go away; they live next to them. But I can realize that life will never be purely joyful again without lessening my love for my daughter, my wife, my family, friends & comrades in any way. Life isn’t good, & life isn’t bad, it’s a container for both, & so there isn’t any imperative for it to be consistently either.
Over the next 25 years — if I get them, & I take it as a good sign that I desperately hope that I do — I will stop expecting magic from time. I’ll stop expecting for the pain to  become remote by some alchemy of minutes & months. I’ll live alongside it. I’ll keep seeing flashes of my mother’s features & expressions on her granddaughter’s face, even if they may be just as constructed as my final memories of her walking towards the room she shared with my dad. I’ll tell my daughter about her Granny, & she’ll sort of understand without really understanding, & sometimes I will leave the room & bawl. I will have good times, sometimes even whole good days. And I will have bad ones, because it’s not written anywhere that I shouldn’t.

Mulcair shrugged: the impossibility of politics in the rise & fall of the NDP

Almost invariably, there is nobody less politically-minded than somebody who gushes, “I’m a total political junkie!” What they usually mean is that they are thrilled by the horse-race aspects of politics, the wheeling and dealing; they can’t get enough of the panel shows that parse strategy and tactics without ever really getting into who will be affected by a particular set of policies, or how, or in whose interest they’re being advanced. In this West Wing view of the world, triangulation and chess-playing are everything; the possibility of genuine political feeling among people who aren’t already players is precluded.

The big, unprecedented federal breakthroughs for the NDP came in 2008 & 2011 — two years of cataclysmic financial crisis & worldwide popular turmoil. 2008 was the year of the crash, the biggest crisis in world capitalism since the Depression which happened to have been the crucible for the NDP’s predecessor, the CCF; it was the year of candidate, then president-elect Obama, and the seemingly unprecedented mobilization of formerly-alienated voters who raised him up. Slavoj Zizek called 2011 “the year of dreaming dangerously,” for Occupy, Tahrir Square, & other massive street uprising around the globe.

Despite itself — despite taking Jack Layton, a leader from the party’s genuine left, to the tepid centre — the NDP benefited from the Canadian franchise of what was clearly a global desire for change in both years. In 2015 — the year of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the election and re-election of Syriza in Greece — they were well-positioned to get lucky one more time.

But the people who run the NDP are political junkies. The clutch of strategists who steer the party, incapable of thinking politically or historically, were convinced that the breakthroughs in 2008 and 2011 owed to the fact that they’d suddenly gotten better at sending emails, were suddenly running more efficient campaigns. They favoured what was not only a purely national explanation for what was clearly at least partially an international phenomenon, but one that even more specifically rested on the story of their own personal genius.

The election of a federal social democratic government (whatever’s the NDP’s vast shortcomings) would have been an historical blow to the country’s age-old electoral framework. Instead, the NDP rushed to make the prospect seem like the most modest thing in the world. Strategist Brad Lavigne spoke in an online video about how daunting & impossible Justin Trudeau’s path to victory would be, how many more seats he had to win, compared to the tiny hop, skip and jump it was to an NDP majority — this despite the excitement of 2011’s “Orange Wave,” of which Lavigne had been an architect, and which had completely upended the electoral map, especially in Québec, making a mockery of early polls or the seat count at the time the writ was dropped. At some point, late into the summer, Justin Trudeau’s team figured out that Thomas Mulcair wasn’t going to run as the Jack Layton of 2011. So he could.

There are two explanations for what briefly catapulted the NDP into the lead over the summer: the election of Rachel Notley in Alberta, and the party’s initially unpopular but principled position on Bill C-51. Each instance obviously played a role, but which one a person decided was the more important almost always reflected their values: political junkies universally saw Notley’s election, the proof that the NDP were responsible and ready for prime time, as the fount of the party’s polling successes. For the world-weary apolitical political junkies, who like the pundits wear their cynicism on their sleeves as a matter of pride and tribal belonging, the alternative — which relied on genuine, semi-sophisticated political feelings on the part of a large swathe of the general public — was silly. It is to Trudeau and his team’s great credit that they were willing to give the public the benefit of the doubt: Trudeau was wrong on C-51, and Mulcair was right, and only the former learned the proper lesson from the the experience.

By the time it came down to deficits versus balanced budgets, Mulcair had already painted himself into a corner, not only fiscally but temperamentally. He had kicked off the campaign by shit-canning a handful of candidates for their statements on Palestine (reminding many of us of the time he hounded Libby Davies; for some of us in the West and in the left our introduction to Mr. Mulcair), and then, when video emerged of him praising the political economy of Thatcherism, he shrugged. Candidate Obama would have taken the opportunity to deliver a defining, inspiring speech about the way we change as individuals and societies, what the left could learn from the right; Candidate Trudeau would have said something vapid and sappy and vaguely evasive. Mulcair shrugged.

Canadians have elected a Liberal majority that, as many observers have suggested, looks strikingly like something out of the 1990s — the decade when the federal Liberals invented Canadian homelessness, gutted the CBC, and devastated federal transfer payments for health care. An historical opportunity for Canada’s parliamentary left has been squandered, and the parliamentary caucus has been so decimated that even some of the bright young lights that could possibly have been part of finding us a way out of the darkness, like Halifax’s Megan Leslie, no longer have the job. The NDP will be in the wilderness for the next several years at least.

Oh well, that’s politics.

Canadaland’s ‘Hongcouver’: when narrative gets in the way

A new episode of Canadaland just came out called ‘Hongcouver’; after I listened to it, I became possessed with a desire to brazenly bite Jeet Heer’s style, & so composed a Twitter essay about Vancouver racism, Chinese money, & the seductive-but-potentially-misleading powers of narrative.

1. The new @CNDLND ep about Chinese money in Vancouver shows the weakness in @JesseBrown’s belief that storytelling inherently serves truth.

2. The lurid appeal of exotic stories about Chinese bajillionaires obscures a) how little we actually know about Chinese ownership in YVR &

3. b) the way these conversations fit in to the long history of Vancouver’s racial imaginary, in which Asia, & specifically China, is Other

4. I wrote in Vancouver Special about how the Chinese have always been scapegoats for White Vancouver’s fears of capitalism, contradictorily

5. In 1907, they were too poor; “regular” (white) people couldn’t compete. In 2007, they were too rich. Same effect in the mythology.

6. As this piece by @AndreaWoo shows, the supposedly overwhelming evidence of Chinese money is pretty overstated.

7. I’m not suggesting there’s no role; also not saying the @CNDLND episode was racist. I’m saying two things:

8. @JesseBrown clearly believes in the power of story. Sometimes, though, boring reporting can come closer to the truth.

9. I.e. “We don’t know for sure. When we look at hydro use…” actually tells us more than “Chinese billionaire dismembering body = YVR”

10. (the just-barely-subtext of the interview is “Jesus, Vancouver is so fucking boring, except on your blog, so I appreciate it.”)

11. But exotic storytelling, including the narratives we tell ourselves, can actually be part of the problem, obscuring the facts & debate.

12. The other point is: it’s not just PC squeamishness to talk about Vancouver racism in this conversation. It’s a real part of the story.

13. It has a long & ignoble history, it affects the way we talk about this issue, & @CNDLND was too quick to dismiss that background.

14. None of this means I think @CNDLND or @JesseBrown are racist. I’ll continue listening & donating to the show, which I think is important


15. I’m to a certain extent indebted to ‘s theory of “The Brown Fallacy,” wrt & personal interest in story

My Reintegration Into Mother’s Day

A few weeks ago, a friend said to me on the phone, “The 10th is Mother’s Day, so there’ll be pressure on us to make it special.” My first instinct, which I managed not to act upon, was to laugh joylessly and say, “On you, maybe — my Mom’s been dead since I was ten.”  I caught myself as I realized that he was referring to our wives. Our kids’ moms.


I know a lot of people who’ve lost their mothers for whom Mother’s Day is a challenge — my brother, for instance. But though I’ve been wracked and left tear-soaked by every other aspect of motherlessness, I can’t remember the holiday ever bothering me too much. After my own Mom died, there were still a few years of brunches and cards for the surrogate, post-mothers in my life — my grandmothers, my aunt — but as soon as I could, and without thinking too much about it, I broke away from these rites, too. I became a Mothers’ Day agnostic; I was aloof of it, even as the advent of social media made it impossible to ignore.

There was something darkly liberating about my attitude. Every other day of the year, I felt the full weight of being motherless, the blind envious rage that came from watching everyone else take the loving maternal presence in their lives for granted with a clueless, bovine passivity. On Mothers’ Day, though, I’d give myself a break from pining; grant myself the gift of detached superiority. When I was little, I played soccer with a kid who’d been adopted, and the way he’d dealt with being different was to laugh at those of us who lived with our birth parents: “Pfft — you came from your mommies’ tummies,” he’d blurt with no attempt to conceal his knowing contempt, assuming that his adoption had exempted him from even the indignity of gestation. There was something of his attitude in my approach to Mothers’ Day. Let the mothered squares buy candies and make dinner reservations.

Last year was my first Mother’s Day back in the fold — picking up the slack left by our infant daughter to lead the celebration of her incredible mother, my wife Cara — and it’s still not second nature. It remains odd and just a little bit unnatural for me to have someone to honour in the middle of May. But all in all,  it’s nice to be back. Broadly speaking, becoming a parent has upended my view of life as a linear process — it seems now, to me, to be much more like a seashell spiral that we start from the inside of. The first loop around, everything is new, but there comes a point where you begin covering the same ground from a little bit further out. I was in kindergarten once; I’ll be there again, in four years, from a different angle. I once ravenously needed parental love and affection; now I get to give it.

Of course, I still need that love just as ravenously, and the hole left by my Mom’s death doesn’t get plugged. But there’s something empowering, too, about having once been quasi-orphaned, and now being able to lavish all the affection my daughter wants and needs. It’s nice to walk back into Mother’s Day as a grown-up. We spiral our grief and our losses, too; we get a bit further away from it, but it’s alway there. The new, good stuff doesn’t push it away; it wraps around it.

Happy Mother’s Day, whether or not you have reservations.


The House of Commons™: Now 10 Years Svend Free!

I didn’t grow up at a time that was particularly conducive to a young, West Coast left-winger’s becoming enamoured with the NDP: when I was 11 years old, BC elected Mike Harcourt premier (“Mike” being a diminutive for the man’s Christian name, “Milquetoast”); when I was 15, our nominally left-wing provincial government sent police and military to siege Sundancers at Gustafsen Lake, reminding us all that colonialism also comes in orange (a lesson that the dipshits in the New Brunswick NDP seem keen on driving home). At the federal level, the party was pounded into near oblivion throughout my grunge-scored puberty, despite a deficit-hawk Liberal majority that were governing as Conservatives avant la lettre (Hipster Paul Martin was gutting the CBC before it was cool, man.) During the last federal election before I was allowed to vote, the local candidates did an afternoon debate in my high school gym, and I, full of delusional young Trotskyist confidence, stepped to the microphone to denounce the capitalist parties. But the NDP candidate — Svend Robinson, a man for whom I had a reformist soft spot, even at the height of my revolutionary zeal — gently but sternly called my bluster-bluff, pointing out how his party’s platform contained pretty much each of the policies whose absences I was lamenting. After the debate, among the crowd of students gathered around him, I sheepishly apologized. I even sent a letter to the local newspaper, the Burnaby Now, refuting one sent by a Reform Party supporter angrily and unfairly complaining about something Svend had supposedly said during the debate. After reading my letter, and characteristic of his now-legendary constituency work, Svend phoned to thank me. Me: a teenaged Trot, not yet of voting age. In true 17-year-old fashion, when the phone rang, I had been in the midst of masturbating to Married With Children.

So if there was anybody who could foster some hint of warm-feeling in me for the NDP, it was Svend Robinson — which is, retrospectively, ironic, given his well-documented history of not-always-creative tension with the party’s leadership and caucus. But Svend was something of a secular saint in my household growing up: the MP who had helped my parents navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy keeping my dying mother from receiving her disability payments. I never got the details of the story from my dad, but the gist of it was always relayed to me with great admiration for the man: “We called him on Friday, the cheque was in the mail on Monday.” I didn’t know, at the time, that my father was also gay, and so would have had a whole slough of reasons for admiring our MP, the first out elected official in the country. I can only hazily remember casting my first vote in a federal election — i just know that it was in the room adjacent to my junior high cafeteria, and that I voted for Svend.

A little while ago, New Star Books — for my money, one of the best publishers in the country — put out a biography of the renegade MP, author Graeme Truelove’s ‘Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics‘; the almost-entirely sympathetic account of the man is, to my heavily-biased mind, absolutely terrific. Having moved beyond Married With Children onanism and into actual, reproductive sex, I now have a little baby to look after, so I’m making my way through the work pretty slowly — but according to my ereader, I’m 80% finished, and anyway I’m past the point of what Svend calls the “Vancouver Centre kamikaze mission,” his failed comeback race in 2005/06, in which I played my own small part, on the campaign team and as one of the people who encouraged him to run again. Reading the account last night was illuminating; I got a better sense of Jack Layton’s aloofness to his longtime friend and ally Svend through that whole episode — a stand-offish, hands-offishness that makes sense in Truelove’s account, but at the time, to me, seemed like the very worst betrayal (back then I took it out by defacing a cardboard cutout of Layton in the back room of the campaign headquarters).

But it was also in reading, last night, that I realized that this week marks ten years since the best MP in the country stepped down after stealing a diamond ring in the midst of what appears to have been a manic episode. A great big decade, as it turned out, in NDP history.

I imagine that those in the party who never liked working with Svend, or those who resented the far-left stake that he’d claimed in Canadian politics, are not only pretty happy to have him gone, but might even point to the party’s electoral successes as being at least indirectly related to his absence. On the other hand, those of us for whom Svend was pretty much the only reason to hang around the NDP in the first place can barely muster the energy to change our Facebook profile pictures to party colours at election time, searching desperately, and always a little bit more hopelessly, for signs of the next Svend; someone chafing against the most conservative, concentrated leadership that the party has ever had (a centrist drift and concentration of power carried out in no small part, it must be said, during Jack Layton’s tenure as leader).

Has the party’s post-Svend decade been a good one? That’s the sort of question that can’t really be answered in a value-neutral way. If you’re a seat-count hack? Shit yeah, the years have been tremendous. We’re #2! But there’s something pathetic about the federal party today, with more MPs and less ability to effect social democracy than ever in its history. As the old joke goes, “it’s not the size of your caucus, it’s how you use it.” Not only did Svend embody something different from the usual electioneering pabulum — a genuine belief in the righteousness and effectiveness of indigenous, environmentalist, and social movement direct action, for starters — but, as Truelove’s wonderful and readable and extremely well-researched book shows, he also showed how gadflies could still exercise real power and affect people’s lives. The episode in which Svend leads the successful campaign to keep “the right to enjoy property” from being enshrined in the Charter (Robinson worried that if it were, things like minimum wage laws and environmental legislation could be imperiled) is indicative; a recurring theme throughout the book is how a third party MP, sometimes even a backbencher, could make real and lasting legislative change. In the end, that might be what was scariest to conventional NDPers about Svend: not only that his radical politics and irreverence endangered the party’s ability to win enough votes to become official opposition or even government, but the fact that his own example showed that if they were smart enough, worked hard enough, and were willing to participate in and draw on social movements, they didn’t necessarily have to, if all they wanted to do was effect change (as opposed to winning). In a world of horse-race politics, where everyone’s killing themselves trying to get to the inside lane, Svend was off in the stables unionizing the jockeys and pointing out that the track was built on stolen land.

A decade after Svend stepped down, there are still good and decent NDP MPs, doing some good work. All of them are better “team players” than Svend ever was — as a result, they are far less likely to make history like he did. The party has officially removed “socialism” from its preamble and unofficially added “go along to get along” to its ethos. Svend got manhandled by Chinese police and IDF soldiers, arrested at Clayoquot, fought legally-enshrined homophobia; today’s NDP fights ATM fees and promises not to tax the rich. It’s been a long ten years.

Anyhow, read Truelove’s book. You’ll probably finish it before I do. I’m busy trying to raise the next Svend Robinson over here.