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

Lotusland Dispatches

I have teamed back up with my former editorial cartoon collaborator from university, David McLeish, to start a new comic called Lotusland Dispatches. Here’s our first effort out of the gate in about 15 years.seagulls2


Dam social democrats

In Québec, social democratic politics were poisoned for generations by the decision(s) to pursue hydro power over the objections of the Indigenous people whose lands the dam projects destroyed. Hydro Québec was a sacred cornerstone of the Quiet Revolution, that brought Québecois out of rural, priest-ridden colonial poverty & into the modern world — at the expense of the Innu & the James Bay Cree. Pierre Vallières wrote that it wasn’t worth selling the soul of Québec socialism “pour un peu d’électricité.”

The well of West Coast socialism has likewise been poisoned today. That a mere 20 years after Gustafsen Lake the BC NDP could still have managed to earn the support of a moral giant like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip should have been a miracle we’d defend with everything we had. Instead, he’s been pissed away along with who knows how many generations of Indigenous leaders & activists who have no reason to trust the NDP when it says it has changed on sovereignty, on respecting treaty rights, on UNDRIP.

I feel for John Horgan, who is a friend, because the Liberals left him holding a timed dirty bomb — this decision is one of those that could very well cost him the next election, & could just as easily have cost it if he’d gone the other way. The difference is, making the other decision may have lost him out in the short run, but would have established real respect for Indigenous sovereignty, the right to veto projects on their own lands, as an NDP principle. Indigenous peoples might finally have seen a parliamentary party that, if you squinted just so, could almost look like an ally.

Socialism can’t be built on colonialism. Today, the movement for Québec independence — once second only to the black Civil Rights struggle in terms of a movement of an oppressed people in North America that managed, by its energy, to pull the labour movement & politics as a whole to the left — is a withered ethno-nationalist husk; it stands for nothing. The root of that failure was in its inability to build real solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The ramifications of today’s announcement will be tragically with us for decades to come.

A clarification & apology, & continued call for institutional accountability

I have been away — from the country, from my phone, and from my computer — for the past 10 days, on a vacation that has been planned for months; if you have reached out to me, messaged me in that time, I wasn’t ignoring you or being callous or stoical. Immediately before leaving, I signed an open letter that has caused many people a lot of pain. Open letters, of course, are never worded or framed as we would put them ourselves, and even as I signed I felt uncomfortable about the asymmetrical framing of the letter; I believe that UBC has wronged all parties, including not only complainants and the accused, but also relative bystanders on staff and among students, and the letter could and should have presented that picture more clearly and more fairly. I don’t believe that anyone — student or instructor — feels safer now after the way in which this unfolding nightmare has been handled by the university. That should have been the starting point. I am so sorry that it wasn’t.

The call to action in the open letter — the demand for a third party assessment of how the school has handled all of this from day one — is one that I stand behind. People whom I deeply respect have reached out to me, or have posted elsewhere, what some of the very serious problems are with the way in which that demand was framed. I agree with a great number of those criticisms. I apologize for the hurt that I have caused.

For the past year, I have assiduously avoided any sort of public declaration on what has been going on at UBC. It has been eating away at me for the entire time. I don’t think that the general public understood, or was able to believe, that we non-tenured instructors knew roughly as much as they did about what was happening at any given point in the process, such as it was. I avoided voicing any denunciations or exculpations; I had nothing at all to add, my longstanding friendship with Steven Galloway having no bearing upon guilt or innocence. Like everyone else, I waited for the outcome of the investigation.

Instead, UBC has offered only enough information with which to be terrified and confused, or to speculate, and so anxiety, confusion, and speculation have abounded. The right of complainants to the highest level of safety and anonymity is of course paramount; the university has at its disposal far greater minds than mine to help sort out a way to navigate the needs of transparency on the one hand and privacy on the other.

I vacillate between wishing I had said something earlier, and wishing I hadn’t said anything at all. I support the right of students and instructors to a safe learning environment, in which especially the former can always be secure in coming forward with their concerns and complaints. I apologize unreservedly to the people I have hurt with my signature for not voicing my concerns with the emphases in the letter before it went up. I stand by its central demand for institutional accountability.

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.