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Let’s stop pretending we can’t end poverty

• By:  Mark Sarner Published on Sat. July 04, 2015

Poverty. Why don’t we end it once and for all?

The assumption is that we can’t afford to. Are we sure? What would it cost exactly? Answer: about $16 billion a year in today’s dollars. Big money. Yet nowhere near as much as it is costing us now to keep it going.

In total, governments spent $13 billion in welfare payments in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available. Say $15 billion in today’s dollars. Those on EI [Employment Insurance] who are classified as poor account for another $3 billion a year or so. Now add the costs of administration — about $4 billion. All to keep the wheels of the system turning. And turn they do, without end, and without ending poverty.

In other words, we could reduce the societal cost of poverty by $6 billion per year by replacing the existing anti-poverty programs with a guaranteed annual income for all.

The question isn’t how can we afford to end poverty, but how can we afford not to? We can’t. And yet, despite the clear moral and economic arguments in favour of a guaranteed annual income, the idea remains outside of the politics of the possible. Why? There are a number of deep-seated and widely held biases that serve as impenetrable socio-cultural barriers. A few for your consideration:

1. This makes no sense: The numbers do, but somehow the idea doesn’t. How can we simply eliminate a societal reality that has been with us since forever? Poverty is an immutable fact of life. At best we can mitigate its impact but that’s it. (But we’ve never really tried. The pledges we make, the incremental steps we take, the plethora of well-intentioned things we try don’t solve the problem but somehow we believe they are more meaningful, more worthwhile than a big bold experiment.)

2. The end of poverty would be wasted on the poor: It appears we believe that the poor are lesser beings than the rest of us. We can’t trust them with money. That’s why we subject them to so many rules and regulations when we make some available to them. (Our paternalism blinds us to the fact that the poor are among society’s best money managers. They could teach us all a thing or two about how to subsist on sub-subsistence incomes.)

3. The poor don’t deserve a free ride: We have to work harder and harder for everything we get. We can’t abide giving the poor a free lunch. We want to be sure they don’t get one. They are already perceived as lazy losers, freeloaders. (As if being poor isn’t hard work. It is a gruelling full-time job with no returns and no progress to be made.)

4. It’s not fair: Yes, the poor may be caught in a vicious cycle, but what about us? We’re in one of our own. If we give the poor a guaranteed annual income they will be free of the drudgery of their lives, specifically the hard work of dealing with the system; meanwhile we’ll be denied our own liberation. (Let’s remember that one dollar over the poverty line is far from easy street. It still leaves them with all life’s challenges and precious little to meet them with. Not the definition of life in the leisure class.)

5. The poor are to blame for their poverty: Many believe that this situation says something about the poor. That somehow they deserve their plight. (Not the true picture, of course. Poverty is a prison without walls, one with very long sentences for too many, little chances of parole and exceedingly high rates of recidivism.)

These and other reasons underlie our determination to fiddle at the margins, to continue to believe against the evidence that we don’t know what to do, that we can’t afford it and that it is not politically doable. The numbers make a simple case: We can eliminate poverty while saving public money.

No illusions here. Making sure everyone has enough money to live above the poverty line isn’t perfect. Subsistence is just that. Further, having a guaranteed income doesn’t solve societal problems like inequity, intolerance and injustice. Nor does it provide other supports: affordable housing, public transit, universal child care, and living wages. The thing is, with economic poverty off the table we will be able to focus time, energy and resources on solving the societal problems that remain.



Hypersensitive? No, anti-racist student activists are right

By: Humera Jabir,  Published on Tues. Dec. 08, 2015

Students of colour are being hypersensitive about racism on their university campuses, at least according to a troubling slew of recent commentaries.

Last month, the CBC’s Neil Macdonald published a column on the resurgence of student protests against racism on campuses across North America, arguing that these protests are an extreme response to “trivial events.” Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, has accused students of exaggerating the scope of racism they face and displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived slights. 

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, an author and a professor, have diagnosed university students with the cognitive disorder of “catastrophizing” — in other words, making a big deal out of nothing.

These critics point to a handful of incidents, such as student protests against culturally insensitive costumes, as proof that these movements have arisen as an overreaction to trivial issues.

In fact, the anti-racist student protest movements have emerged in reaction to the very real racism that exists on North American campuses. At the University of Missouri last month, black students were attacked with racial slurs and a swastika was found drawn with human feces in a residence hall. Here in Canada, Mei-Ling, a biracial student at Concordia University was subjected to racist and sexist slurs by her peers in student government. She commented earlier this year that her experience “reflect[s] a disturbing rape culture and mindset of racism that has no place in a university like Concordia.” The examples are disturbingly abundant.

By targeting the supposedly trivial concerns of particular protests, these critics ignore the reality that blatant racism is still a regular experience for many students of colour on campus.

Perhaps more troubling still is that the issues they dismiss as trivial are not trivial at all; rather, they are examples of the subtle racism that today is bigotry’s most common form. The donning of turbans, hijabs or dreadlocks for comedic effect on Halloween, for instance — a practice dismissed as harmless by Macdonald — is an act of hurtful insensitivity, a form of racism disguised as good fun. And it’s all too common on Canadian campuses, especially at the expense of indigenous peoples. 

In 2013, students at the Université de Montréal dressed in redface costumes that mocked native communities. In 2010, McGill’s management students held a tribal theme frosh with students appearing in costumes and face paint depicting four indigenous tribes. The failure to recognize that indigenous peoples are actual peoples and not caricatures to be adopted for entertainment should be concerning to all.

Nor are the histories that universities choose to commemorate a trivial matter, as some of these critics claim. Princeton students are demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the university’s school of public affairs because of his racist policies. At Harvard Law School, students have engaged in vibrant protest against the school’s crest, which was borrowed from a family known to be ruthless slaveholders. Students are right that the racist legacies at the foundation of many institutions of higher learning should be opened up for scrutiny — both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Macdonald writes that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were also slave owners; should the “entire firmament of Western leadership in the past three centuries” then be effaced? The students challenging these legacies are not attempting to erase history but to confront it. Who[m] North American universities choose to glorify must be renegotiated now that the viewpoints of marginalized peoples who were previously excluded from these institutions can finally be heard. Whatever the outcome, the grappling is essential.

Even the most seemingly ridiculous recent case of anti-racist protest — the University of Ottawa student federation’s cancellation of a yoga class on the grounds that the practice is an example of cultural appropriation — is more complicated than it seems. It’s true that yoga is appropriated from Hindu culture. Whether this means that yoga classes should be cancelled or conducted differently is up for legitimate debate. Anti-racist student activism may be misdirected at times but that is what university is for — an opportunity to learn and engage in a debate about the boundaries of ideas.

Critics of student activism want students to toughen up. Macdonald asks how students expect to manage in the real world, which he describes as “offensive, noisy, [and] pitiless.” Engaging in activism, however, teaches students to identify racism, call out oppressive comments and behaviour, and to advocate for themselves and others. Critics might learn something from the strength of students of colour whose critical sensitivity to discrimination might ensure that an offensive and pitiless world is not the future.

Humera Jabir is a law student at McGill University.



The limits of accommodation

By: Rosie DiManno  Columnist, The Toronto Star, Published on Tues. Sep 08 2015

Piety is a place in the heart. And soul — for those believe in what can’t be disproven.

Apart from places of religious gathering, amongst the like-minded, it doesn’t otherwise belong in the public dimension, the secular spaces we all share in Western culture.

That includes up in the air — aboard an ExpressJet passenger plane. Or inside the clerk’s office in Rowan County, Ky. Kim Davis, the county clerk who infamously refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, following the dictates of her conscience, was cut loose on Tuesday by a judge. She’d been incarcerated for contempt of court.

Sticking her fingers in her ears, ignoring court orders and state legislation, Davis had fashioned herself — or at least others did on her behalf — a conscientious objector, like a Quaker who refuses to fight under conscription, except of course there is no conscription anymore in the U.S. So analogies are hard to come by, unless perhaps drawing up anti-abortionist medical practitioners who won’t participate in the procedure at publicly funded hospitals and clinics.

Readers might recall, years back, the Toronto cop who defied orders to protect the Morgentaler abortion clinic at a time of volatile demonstrations, citing religious beliefs. Babies were being killed in there, he argued. There were no babies on board, just fetuses at various stages of gestation. But zealots use their own dramatic language. It invests them with a higher moral purpose.

Americans take their constitutional right to oppose government very seriously. Hence the right to bear arms, intended in its infancy as the freedom to raise a militia against overbearing and autocratic government. It was never about the right to own your own automatic assault weapon in case the mood should strike to murder dozens of school children.

Davis had elected to selectively disobey the laws she has sworn to uphold, at least the one, specifically, with which she disagrees. In practice, there is no opt-out clause, and as a bureaucratic functionary, Davis has always been aware of this. She can object inside her narrow little mind all she likes. But she can’t unilaterally defy statutes or a court order.

Yet Davis had become a symbol, because nobody really wanted her behind bars. I suspect she’s the only person — aside from hard-right evangelical fellow-travellers — who enjoyed the spectacle of her cloaked in self-righteous martyrdom. Others do fret that accommodation, a peaceful co-existence, could not be reached.

Why, for the love of God, should anybody accommodate intolerance and mean-spiritedness? Maybe there are just some jobs we aren’t all suited for — or entitled to. Like, I can’t be a major league baseball player or the Pope. Except of course it’s all about entitlement these days.

Charee Stanley is the flight attendant for Atlanta-based ExpressJet who’s been suspended for refusing to serve alcohol to passengers requesting a libation. Stanley converted to Islam in the three years since she was hired. Obviously her religion, any religion, is of no employment significance. An observant Old Order Mennonite would probably not aspire to a flight attendant’s job, because the sect cleaves to non-modern ways.

The duties of a flight attendant — apart from safety instruction, dealing with emergencies, that sort of thing — are fairly limited. Hauling that drinks cart up the aisle is one of them. But an attendant who won’t even handle alcohol — as Stanley has refused, on the grounds that her faith prohibits it, which is a new twist to me — shouldn’t be donning the “uniform.” Accommodation should always be the objective, and Stanley claims such an arrangement had been working effectively with colleagues. But at least one of those co-workers wasn’t having it anymore and filed a complaint on Aug. 2 with their supervisor, alleging Stanley wasn’t fulfilling her duties.

Stanley has now brought a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying she wants to do her job without serving alcohol.

Hey, I would like to do my job without the intolerable affliction of half-hour deadlines. But deadlines are a tenet of the newspaper religion.

I’m not merely being flippant. But religion-based grievances in the workplace — or, say, on the sex-education curriculum adopted for Ontario schools — are increasingly flipping the individual against the collective, the personal against the public.

Equal employment and human rights commissions are actually the wrong place for addressing these matters, because, especially the latter, as they exist to enforce distinctions, promote inflammatory otherness, rather than effect compromise.

Recall the Toronto restaurant owners who last year were ordered to pay three Muslim men $100,000 compensation after the human rights tribunal heard their case. The men — the head chief, sous chef, and a cook — argued they’d been forced to leave the establishment following alleged incidents that included badgering them to taste food during the fasting hours of Ramadan. They were also, the men contended, pressured to try pork, which was against their religion.

Clearly, Muslims can’t be bullied into eating during Ramadan or allowing pork to cross their lips — nor pork for observant Jews, or beef for strict Hindus, or meat for vegetarians. But maybe if you adhere to such dietary restrictions, you shouldn’t be working at a restaurant that prepares and serves those dishes. A chef who doesn’t taste his or her own food? I’d call that sacrilegious. But the tribunal found otherwise.

I’m not advocating the purely contrarian, like that mischievous young woman who whinged that a Bay Street Muslim barber refused to cut her hair, on the grounds he wasn’t permitted to touch an unrelated female. The customer had a plethora of alternative hair-snippers nearby.

But turning the world upside-down, or a plane? Or compelling everyone to abide by your zealous religious views on same-sex marriage?

That’s holier-than-thou bilge and god-damned.



On Changing the Cleveland Indian’s Logo Chief Wahoo

By EDWARD KEENAN Columnist, The Toronto Star

Tues., Oct. 18, 2016

Tom McEwen dismissed on Monday an application brought by residential school survivor and architect Douglas Cardinal for an injunction forbidding the Cleveland baseball team from using its nickname and logo, and the Rogers Centre and local broadcasters from using them too, it represented a victory for free speech.

But when the Cleveland baseball team took the field in Toronto less than three hours later with the cartoonish “Chief Wahoo” logo — a goofy caricature from a bygone cowboy-flick conception of an indigenous American — emblazoned on their hats and arms, and the name “Indians” emblazoned across their chests, it represented an ongoing loss for common decency.

That is, like in the case of so many decisions rightly protecting speech from government censorship, it hardly puts one in the mood to celebrate, since most cases that put speech at risk of government censorship feature speech that is depressingly offensive.

You never know what a local authority in Toronto will do when faced with even a kind of ridiculous complaint that something offends them — remember, this city once banned Barenaked Ladies from City Hall based on their name “objectifying women,” and our police force once threatened to arrest Madonna if she didn’t cut a simulated self-pleasuring routine out of a concert performance. But in this case, the judge ruled that no “emergency” local ban on Cleveland trademarks should apply.

The judge’s reasoning will come later. Still, it appears on the face of it that it was the right ruling. Courts should not be interfering in the speech and imagery used by people and organizations except in the most extreme of circumstances, even when the speech and images in question are controversial or offensive.

What should be interfering with Cleveland’s use of that word and that image, and our own, is a sense of common decency. I avoid using the name of Cleveland’s team — and Washington’s football team, and so on — because I have heard from indigenous people that the use of “Redskins” and “Indians” and similar names in this context is hurtful to them. Isn’t that enough for a reasonable person? If someone feels insulted by the way you refer to them, or the way you use a word that refers to them, then you stop referring to them that way. Unless, of course, your intention is to insult them.

I’ve heard the argument that these names are meant to honour indigenous communities — that they are sources of pride. Perhaps some people believe them to be so. But if enough of the people you intend to honour tell you that they feel ridiculed and insulted by your tribute, and you continue on as if you have not heard them, then you are doing honouring wrong.

In court, the defence came up that the NHL features controversy-free teams named “Canucks” and “Canadiens.” But of course those teams represent, are owned by, cheered on by, and largely staffed by Canadians, the very people the names reference. You also only get into this kind of debate so far before someone brings up the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, one of whose logos is a leprechaun with his dukes up. It bears pointing out that the Holy Cross priests who founded and built that school’s football teams under that name were heavily Irish, as was its student body at the time, and its sports history is as a rallying point for Irish Catholics who once faced oppression and direct attacks from the KKK. Again, it is a nickname and image embraced and largely celebrated by the people it nominally represents.

Of course, there are many indigenous people — I’ve seen the surveys — who claim they are not offended by the Cleveland team, or the Washington football team, or the Chicago hockey logo, or the absurd chant baseball fans perform in Atlanta. Their feelings and thoughts on the matter are certainly more relevant than mine. I wouldn’t presume to tell them what language they should use or encourage when it comes to talking about themselves. But there is clearly also a substantial number of indigenous people who are offended, who say that they feel mocked and oppressed, and that this is especially hurtful given the well-documented, ongoing, marginalized place of indigenous people across North America. I am not inclined to use or celebrate languages and imagery that makes so many upset, even if others are fine with it.

But it’s just a tradition, some insist! Which is no argument at all. Slavery was once a tradition in North America. Racism is a tradition. Forbidding women to work outside the home was a tradition. Sexual harassment is a tradition. The disregard and mistreatment of indigenous people is perhaps the longest-standing North American tradition. Nostalgia about how it’s always been is no argument against change.

And if it still seems to me important, for a number of reasons, that courts don’t mandate proper speech, it also seems reasonable to me that we ought to be using our own speech to advocate for decency and respect. Each of us can decide to respect the people asking us not to gratuitously insult them in our choice of words. Each of us can express that we demand organizations and corporations should do the same, and we can direct our dollars and attention to rewarding or punishing them based on their decisions.

A broadcaster, encountering a group of people who have said they feel insulted by a certain term, can and should decide whether to continue insulting them or not. A baseball team, or the league that oversees it, can decide that avoiding gratuitous insult of an already tremendously oppressed group of people is more important than their tradition.

Or people and organizations can decide that they do not wish to avoid giving offence, and then we know that the insult is not unintentional. That’s the beauty of free speech: those putting it to use in the most upsetting ways are letting you know exactly who you are dealing with, and you can react accordingly.