Sacrificing the Future for the Present? The Sustainability of the “Library of the Future”

 

SnarkleMotion

The library profession has long had a problematic relationship with technology and the future. Its vast (and ever-growing) literature concerned with the “library of the future” is simultaneously replete with both enthusiasm for high-tech possibilities and existential fears of institutional and professional obsolescence (for example see Drabenstott; Duderstadt). While much of this literature may be classified according to its embrace of (or caution regarding) digital technologies, it does tend to be rather instrumental in its focus on institutional priorities, considering the challenges of the future solely from perspective of librarianship, despite the broad social forces in which libraries exist – forces reflected in the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries’ Trends webpages (“Trends”). As Karen Coyle observes, “we have to look beyond libraries in our long range planning. The future of libraries is inherently integrated with the future of a larger context: economics, technologies, social developments” (140). In other words, libraries must be understood materially and relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a part of larger societies – which is to say dialectically (Bales 2015). As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships over time, dialectics emphasizes the materiality of institutions such as libraries (including their technological bases), while recognizing that they are inseperable from both intrinsic and extrinsic ideological foundations and historical circumstances.

In addition to inadequately situating libraries, the library literature about the future also neglects its other ostensible focus: the future itself, and our discourses about it. As a consequence, our ability to plan ethically for potential futures is unnecessarily constrained. This is particularly true for understanding, preparing for and addressing the very sustainability of future libraries, which suffers from a number of fundamental – but little-understood – threats. To address these gaps in the literature, and to better equip library practitioners with the tools necessary to plan for their institutional and professional futures in uncertain times, this article suggests that the prescriptions and potentials for the future of libraries be viewed through perspectives and ideas drawn from futures studies, a discipline intimately concerned with forecasting, anticipating, understanding, planning, evaluating and deliberating about the future. Such a lens can help us to better understand the promises and perils of future libraries, not just in terms of libraries in the future but how our own professional planning in the past has been rendered problematic by future-oriented ideologies.

Futures studies concerns how societies may achieve preferable futures and avoid potential threats while maintaining an ethical stance towards the future (Adam and Groves; Bell). As futurist Ziauddin Sardar (2010) argues, futures studies compels us to interrogate technologically-driven futures for their potential to preclude more pluralistic alternatives. Grounding our dialectical deliberations regarding the future of libraries in the external theories of futures studies can assist library professionals in mapping out future pathways characterized by stability and enduring principles rather than anxiety-ridden reactions to constant, external change.

For example, Hal Niedzviecki in his 2015 book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future identifies our culture’s tendency towards what he calls “future-first thinking”, a toxic and anxiety-generating ideology that leads to anxious existential questions about the future —certainly a theme in the LIS literature. In Niedzviecki’s view, our culture’s obsession with the future is about the goal of “owning” or “seizing” it, largely by disrupting the present through the rejection of traditional or current practices, technologies and values. Most relevant for our purposes is his observation regarding the eagerness with which we as consumers adopt new technologies even though the history of technology is “littered with unintended consequences” (224). With disruption being at the core of the ideology of the future, Niedzviecki warns that “we are adopting a techno-scientific notion of owning the future as a replacement for the social certainty we crave and have now irretrievably lost” (125).

All of this emphasis on owning and seizing the future begs the question: from whom or what? What might we irretrievably lose? What does owning the future imply about our obligations towards it? Barbara Adam, a futures studies scholar at Cardiff University observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world, she writes,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112-113).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else; and that one is ultimately responsible for all outcomes (Adam and Groves).

What might such taking mean in the context of future libraries? For what outcomes are we responsible? I would argue that there are at least three potential ways in which the digital library of the future threatens to take – and has already taken – the future from others.

An uncritical embrace of unproven technologies as a pathway to dramatically reinventing libraries has already compromised collections and forever foreclosed future access to older materials. As preservation librarian Randy Silverman argues in his 2016 paper “Surely We’ll Need Backups,” the library profession in the late 20th Century, enamoured of visions for digital libraries of the future and buoyed by an extraordinary level of groupthink and a failure of LIS scholarship, convinced themselves there was a brittle books “crisis” and therefore an urgent need to microfilm and then pulp millions of books, journals and newspapers. For 20 years this federally-funded and ideologically-motivated campaign of “destroying print in order to save it” sliced, scanned and shredded en masse until all that remained of historic runs of great American newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and New York World were housed at the British Library — and even these were only saved from oblivion because author Nicholson Baker (Author of Double Fold) founded a non-profit organization and won them at auction in part with his own retirement funds. While microform companies and advocates claim microforms will endure as long as 500 years, these estimates are based on optimal storage and use conditions which do not always obtain. In any case, microfilm should never have been considered the “object of record” – yet so many originals are now lost forever (Silverman).

But what about the longevity of digital media? Our profession is greatly occupied with preventing a “digital dark age” and in archiving the fast-changing Web, but what will future generations know of all of the scholarship of our era – including journal collections largely replaced by online databases – in the event of catastrophic technological failure or collapse? Such a possibility is not confined to the realm of science fiction: in July 2012, Earth narrowly avoided being blasted by two coronal mass ejections from the Sun which, had they struck one week earlier when Earth was in a different position in its orbit, would have caused electrical grids all over the planet to collapse as transformers burst into flames, reducing “bookless libraries” such as the one at Florida Polytechnic University to little more than architectural curiosities, and sweeping into oblivion all online scholarship (Baker et al.). It would have sent us back to the 19th Century – but a 19th Century with almost no copies of The Chicago Tribune and New York World.

Even absent threats from outer space, our dependence on digital information platforms is premised on reliable electrical infrastructure into the future; however, in North America at least this is a problematic proposition at best. As Jason Makansi argues in his 2007 book Lights Out North America’s energy infrastucture is facing an interconnected series of crises: aging power plants, rising fuel prices, dangerously extended supply lines, neglected transmission systems, the ravages of climate change including frequent extreme weather events, a dangerous reliance on imported liquid natural gas, the introduction of deregulation into the supply chain, and an aging workforce and therefore a dwindling pool of expertise to address any of these problems (Makansi). The widescale replacement of owned print journal runs and paper books with licensed digital access is, as a result, a gamble that these tenuous present conditions will always persist.

The third future-foreclosing dimension of the library of the future – and the information age more generally – is that of the essentially unknowable environmental impacts of the decades-long transition to digital information delivery, and which have been thoroughly – and quietly – externalized. The rapid obsolescence of ICT in public and academic libraries has generated vast amounts of e-waste from standalone catalogues, PCs, CD-ROM drives, servers, monitors, VCRs and DVD players, etc., an enormously complex and toxic waste stream which has only in recent years come under regimes of recycling, which themselves may not be all they seem. Only half of the U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws in place, and in Canada an action plan for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was adopted for provincial jurisdictions only in 2009. Prior to these recent developments, 90% of e-waste in Canada was historically sent to landfills or illegally exported to developing countries with no such regulations at all (McClearn; Schroeder). To give some sense of the scale of the problem, a 2014 article in the Annals of Global Health found that

the amount of e-waste produced in 2012 is enough to fill 100 Empire State buildings …The final destination of nearly 70% of e-waste is either unreported or unknown. Eighty percent of e-waste generated in the United States reportedly contributes to the global “hidden flow” of e-waste; it is not registered meaning it is either unofficially exported [to Asia or Africa], dumped into landfills, incinerated [or] recycled…in scrap yards and homes [often by] by children (Perkins 287-290).

Remarkably, considering the transition to widespread computer use in libraries has been underway for decades, very little empirical research has been done or data gathered in the LIS literature on the environmental sustainability of the digital library. University of Toronto Communications scholar Sabine Lebel, in her analysis of environmental impacts in the ICT field, finds them “radically under-theorized” (1) despite ICTs constituting the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and the clearly racialized impacts of this waste stream. She considers our technological ideology according to what David Nye refers to as the technological sublime – in which ICT is exalted as inherently green, positive and future-oriented away from a dirty industrial past – as well as Rob Nixon’s notions of slow violence against poorer populations in the global south who suffer environmental degradation and as-yet unknown health impacts from the globalized economics of e-waste (Lebel).   

In economic terms, libraries have almost entirely externalized the ecological costs of the unceasing transition from one technology to another, rather than internally accounting for, preventing or ameliorating these impacts. This is not to place undue censure on libraries, given the lateness of appropriately-scaled regimes of reclamation and recycling in which they could feasibly participate. Yet we must acknowledge that the digital library of the future — far from being technologically sublime — is now, and has always been, unsustainable ecologically and socially, yet is a vision that has been for decades now pursued with barely-recognized ideological fervour. Adam & Groves would further add that

the modern drive towards innovation… has produced fundamentally different correlations of action knowledge and responsibility… contextuality and embeddedness have been displaced by decontextualized, disembedded relations in order to produce  a world of pure potential where anything is possible, thus subject to our design (164-5).

Such disembeddedness, I would argue, has contirubted to libraries casting print newspaper runs aside and nearly driving them to extinction, then with similar blithe trust betting everything on highly vulnerable digital pathway dependencies into an uncertain future, dependencies fraught with grave — but unrecognized and unaccounted for — ecological and racialized social consequences. While driven by what Niedzviecki calls future-first thinking, they ironically make the future of libraries less certain, not more — what philosopher William James described as “the sacrifice of the future for the present” (quoted in Kunstler 185).

What we see, then, is that any discourse about the “library of the future” includes but must transcend the scope of librarianship itself. As we progress through the ever-more difficult and troubling terrain of the 21st Century, characterized as it is by rapid technological changes, demographic transformations, growing inequality and concomitant political, economic and climatic uncertainties, as well as competing extremist ideologies, the dialectical situatedness of libraries takes on paramount importance to any discussion about their futures – a reality to which ALA’s Roundtables for Social Responsibility, Ethnic and Multicultural Exchange and Sustainability attests. Indeed, the “library of the future” in many respects meets the standard of a “wicked problem” as set out by Rittel and Webber in their classic formulation: it has no agreed-upon causes (what are the most pressing issues that will need to be addressed in the future?), is always a symptom of other problems (the “digital divide” is also an inherently intersectional and structural one), no end point (when will we have achieved the “library of the future”?),  and is so affected by every intervention (any technological innovation or implementation represents a different pathway-dependency) that they can have no ultimate, universal solution (Rittel and Webber).

This is why we as library professionals instead need to bear in mind a dialectical understanding of the situatedness of our institutions (Bales): how their materiality (including unseen energy, mineral and toxic footprints) and interrelatedness with the rest of the planet is influenced by our ideological assumptions — such as our own confidence in the public library’s inherent progressiveness and technological sublimity. Futurist Ziudden Sardar further reminds us that that actual location of futures studies’ discourses is in the present: that our conversations about the future – in this case about libraries — have a very real impact on their contemporary existences (Sardar). Accordingly, the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries stresses that futuristic technologies and service models must be weighed against the existing core values of librarianship (“Core Values”). Sardar also recognizes the colonizing potential in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182). Diverse knowledge systems, he argues, have the potential to temper and decolonize technocratic impulses.

Futures studies approaches can aid us in identifying these potential risks in our future-library discourses, policies and practices, while pointing to the need for alternative pathways to enriched, more humanistic, pluralistic and sustainable future for libraries.

(Image: SnarkleMotion )

Presented under a different title at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians conference, Ryerson University, Toronto May 30th 2017.

 

References

Adam, Barbara, and Chris Groves. Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Brill, 2007.

“Core Values of Librarianship” American Library Association. 15 Sept. 2017, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues

Baker, D. N., et al. “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012: Defining extreme space weather scenarios.” Space Weather vol. 11, no. 10 (2013): 585-591.

Baldé, C. P. The Global e-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, Flows and Resources. United Nations University, 2015.

Bales, Stephen. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA, Library Juice Press, 2015.

Drabenstott, Karen M. Analytical Review of the Library of the Future. Washington, DC: Council on Library Resources, 1994.

Duderstadt, James J. “Possible Futures for the Research Library in the 21st Century.” Journal of Library Administration vol. 49, no .3 (2009):217–225.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. ed., New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

LeBel, Sabine. “Wasting the future: The technological sublime, communications technologies, and e-waste.” communication+ vol. 1, no. 1.1 (2012): 1-19.

McClearn, Matthew. “Where Computers go to die.” Canadian Business. May 28 2013. https://tinyurl.com/y6wqgqra

Niedzviecki, Hal. Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2015.

Perkins, Devin N., et al. “E-waste: a global hazard.” Annals of Global Health vol. 80, no. 4 (2014): 286-295.

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences vol. 4, no. 2 (1973): 155-169.

Sardar, Ziauddin. “The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?.” Futures vol. 42, no. 3 (2010): 177-184.

Schroeder, Harold. E-waste management in Canada. Environment Canada: Fredericton, NB, Canada (2013).

Silverman, Randy. “Surely, We’ll Need Backups.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture vol. 45, no.3 (2016): 102-121.

“Trends” American Library Association 15 Sept. 2017. http://www.ala.org/tools/future/trends

 

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Book Review: Zoë Quinn’s “Crash Override”

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate
By Zoë Quinn
PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $34

Perhaps a chance involvement in a controversial news story did it, or a phone-in interview on the radio. Maybe a letter to the editor in the days following, or even some politically charged comments on Facebook or Twitter.

Whatever the original impetus, an ocean of hate has been unleashed against you: every imaginable insult, as well as a stream of vile sexual and racist threats are now filling your email inbox and Twitter feed. Your phone is ringing at all hours of the night, and your employer is similarly besieged, leading you to fear for your job. Soon, everyone in your inner circle, including your family, suffers similar attention as this invisible, anonymous mob tirelessly seeks to tear your life apart.

As American video game developer and activist Zoë Quinn argues in this disheartening but instructive and fiercely compassionate book, if it happened to her it could happen to you — or anyone.

For Quinn, her nightmare began in August 2014, when a former boyfriend published a lengthy online screed about her, alleging multiple infidelities — one in particular with a gaming journalist, supposedly to garner a positive review. As a modestly successful independent developer (and self-identified queer woman) in an industry dominated by men, Quinn was instantly and brutally targeted by an army of misogynist trolls in an incessant campaign that continues to this day.

Not only did this assault force her from her home in fear for her life, but it also instigated the regressive online culture war known as #Gamergate, a predominately white male backlash against feminist and race-based critiques of gaming media.

The reach of this campaign is as appalling as its contents: a search for Quinn’s name on YouTube yields more than 11,800 videos, the vast majority of them vitriolic or accusatory. Quinn points out that Gamergaters include many of the players of the “alt-right” (including recently ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon), all of whom invariably justify their frenzied incoherent rage and contempt for women as a concern for “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Crash Override begins with Quinn’s frank account of her early life, which included battles with depression and substance abuse as well as work as a nude model, before explaining the harrowing circumstances of her “doxing” (the internet term for the malicious release of personal and identifying information such as one’s home address) and her desperate efforts to combat it.

She soon learned that the legal system and other conventional institutions are simply not adequately versed in the technologies and rapidly shifting tactics of online hate and were unable to help her, leaving her and a few close allies on their own.

Quinn relates all this with both candour and occasional humour, but demonstrates remarkable restraint when describing her attackers, declining to even mention them by name: her former boyfriend is “the ex” while several celebrities associated with Gamergate are only referred to with vague references to their better-known public lives.

Based on what she learned from her terrible experiences, Quinn founded a non-profit organization, the Crash Override Network (crashoverridenetwork.com), which assists victims of online abuse. It is funded by the brilliant Feminist Frequency YouTube channel produced by her friend and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian — also, not incidentally, one of Gamergate’s primary targets.

She supplements her own story with numerous accounts drawn from media reports of online hatred directed against (mostly) women, persons of colour, or those identifying as LGBTTQ*, presenting a fairly disturbing portrait of our collective capacity for cruelty. Significantly, she does not exclude herself from this depiction, admitting that she, too, had thoughtlessly attacked people online in her youth.

It is this honesty, combined with her compassionate ability to speak to both victims and abusers as well as the linkages she draws between online misogyny and broader contemporary political hate campaigns, that makes this such an important and timely book, especially following the recent events in Charlottesville, Va.

More than being merely Quinn’s personal story or a manual for protecting your online privacy, Crash Override is a powerful manifesto for how we can all combat online abuse, bigotry, racism and sexism, and become better digital — and real-world — citizens.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, September 16th 2017.

Guest Post: On Decolonizing Shakespeare, the Publishing Industry and the Academy

[Note: Over the past several years I have been engaged in an interdisciplinary research agenda related to the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) which concerns doubt and skepticism regarding the dubious biography of “William Shakespeare” and the more promising authorial candidacy of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. In 2014, the Shakespeare journal Brief Chronicles: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Authorship Studies (volume 5) published my article entitled “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question,” which was followed the following year with “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries” which was published in volume 17 of The Oxfordian, a journal focused on research into Oxford as Shakespeare.

The argument in the first paper was that a major reason why it is so difficult in the academy to question Shakespeare’s biography (the myth of the thrifty businessman and theatre shareholder who supposedly rose from humble provincial origins to create the greatest literary works in the English language) is not just that Shakespeare has always been a secular British national icon, but that the mythos of his alleged “natural genius” closely mirrors (and is in fact tied to) the imperial, exceptionalist mythology of the “genius of the West” used to justify centuries of colonialism. The second paper is a Foucauldian look at how SAQ-related scholarship is subjugated and marginalized in the academy, specifically in terms of the extent to which library subject headings and classification contribute to these forces. 

Recently, I received the following amazing response to these articles from Paris-based novelist and publisher Amita Mukerjee, which builds upon my ideas but from the powerful perspective of someone raised in the culture of the post-colonial global south. As a librarian, academic and Shakespearean I found her remarks extremely insightful, provocative and generative; with her gracious permission I share them here not so much for the positive comments about my own work — however appreciated — but rather for her original and literary insights into the historic and ongoing influences of colonialism. — MD] 

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On Decolonizing Shakespeare, the Publishing Industry and the Academy

By Amita Mukerjee

I would like to congratulate you on two fantastic articles (“By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” and “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries”), both of which I found phenomenal, the former especially. I grew up in India, and as such, have always been keenly aware of the Colonialist-Imperialist issues at stake in Shakespeare authorship; in fact, I have been looking to see if someone would raise the issue in the SAQ context. But really, both articles spoke to me, because I am also painfully aware of the institutional barriers your second article examines. In addition, I am an avid reader of Foucault, Said, Fanon, Deleuze etc. and nurture a full-blown obsession with the devoted upkeep of nineteenth-century racism-jingoism by leading Western institutions in the domain of culture (literature, music and art), but also in the fields of History, Philology and Anthropology. Lastly, since I am continually grinding my teeth at the ongoing, tiresome cacophony of Western exceptionalism, ubiquitous in the news and in ‘Entertainment,’ to read someone who actually refers to this exceptionalism by name and connects it to the SAQ was brilliant indeed. So for all these reasons, thank you and bravo!

I am a writer, and with my brother Gopal Mukerjee, (also a writer), I created a publishing company in 2007 (Revenge Ink, currently in a state of suspended financial animation owing to the institutional barriers you discuss in your second article), because we both discovered quite unexpectedly when we set out to publish with the mainstream, that we were trapped inside the asphyxiating Orientalist label: ‘Indian writer.’ In fact, we learned, entirely to our naïve surprise, that to be published in the mainstream as an ‘individual’ was nothing short of a pipe dream, especially if you happened to come from India. And that conversely, to tailor your work to Western elite-liberal expectations was the key to gaining access. To limit your writing, in other words, to a set of representations that continued to exclude a vast territory of potentially threatening ‘subjugated knowledge and discourse,’ which could only be neutralized by the Western mainstream via neatly framed categories such as ‘Indian writer.’ (The first page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ encapsulates perfectly what I mean and what the publishing industry likes to read if you’re submitting as an Indian writer, combining as that page does, in one single brilliantly obfuscated image, the representations: brown female [with her quasi-animal burdenedness and swollen pregnant belly], sweltering heat, implied gender inferiority via isolation from the husband, grotesque exotic foods made out of familiar all-American products like ‘rice crispies,’ etc. etc.)

Only in 2007 then, did my brother and I discover that the phrase ‘Indian writer’ was not merely a marketing/sales category, but a type of ‘discursive formation.’ And as such, not only was it eerily similar to those ‘enclosing/excluding’ Library of Congress categories and headings you describe in your second article, but like pretty much every other profoundly insulting category in the publishing industry, actually made this industry a stalwart nineteenth-century-style Imperialist relic. Today, I have come to see quite clearly that the publishing and elite literary (academic, reviewing, etc.) institutions of the Anglo-Saxon world almost single-handedly uphold Western exceptionalism in culture, through their enabling/withholding of fictional and historical narratives, and by continuing to represent as ‘generally accepted,’ narratives and perspectives on/about race, gender and class that are actually patently ahistorical, but which get set down as ‘true’ as they enter generalized (seemingly unchallenged) mainstream discourse. Of course, as your first article so brilliantly suggests, even as this type of propagandist cultural reification is increasingly being challenged, Shakspere of Stratford remains at the heart of the argument. Shakspere’s transhuman ahistoricity mirrors the transhistorical superiority of the West. In both cases (Shakspere and the enclosing publishing categories we encountered), the elite literary institution claims to be letting the ‘text speak to us directly’ in a kind of naïve ‘Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’ or ‘Indians write about India’ logic, but in reality, the academy and the publishing world strictly control which texts and representations reach the public, thereby determining which texts we should read and how we should read them. In the case of novel-writing, this ‘control’ includes the very definition of what novels are, rules about who gets to write them, and (most remarkable of all) what constitutes ‘literature.’ In fact, the label ‘Indian writer’ carries within it a tacit Imperialist contract: the mainstream publishing industry lets you in (essentially) to testify as an ‘insider’ to the backwardness of your people, and in return, asks that you declare your unquestioning fealty to the Western literary-institutional worldview and to its ‘modern,’ supposedly universal (read: superior) outlook.

Then there is the nineteenth-century notion of ‘high seriousness,’ which continues, I think, to imprison both the SAQ and the modern novel. For my brother Gopal and myself, the straitjacket category ‘Indian writing’ did not cover merely an atavistic Orientalist type of narrative (as exemplified by Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’), but also a fundamentally nineteenth-century bourgeois understanding (and academic/elitist circumscribing) of novelistic discourse. As far as I’m concerned, Shakspere in his Stratfordian guise not only perpetuates Western exceptionalism in culture, he also sits at the core of a certain ‘exceptionalist’ conception of literature itself: as fundamentally ‘high-serious’ in its moral concerns and ‘timeless’ in its ahistorical grandeur; as transhistorical but ‘modernizing’ in its influence; as culturally specific but unassailable as historical/socio-cultural object. Shakspere allows the Western literary and cultural institutions to say to the world and its writers: ‘(only) we know what literature is, because (only) we have produced the highest example of it.’ This then means the Western elite can further define (through access to publishing, reviews, and reification via awards, etc.) what kind of writing gets published and what is termed ‘literature.’ In this context, publishing categories (such as Literary, Women’s, Indian, Memoir, etc.) serve not as marketing labels, but as strictly circumscribed channels within the mainstream, to ensure literary discourse does not ‘leak out’ of ‘high-mindedness’ and begin to fuel subjugated discourse (as it did in the 1920s and more particularly in the 50s-70s). Shakspere then, in the Holy Trinity of the Western domination of global culture, is the Son, whose Father is the ever-superior Anglo-Saxon West, with the Holy Ghost embodied in the power to say what constitutes ‘great’ art and what does not. Part of this process, of course, involves Western critics retroactively (and preposterously) imprinting reified authors (liberated as they are from troublesome historical association) with contemporary hagiographic fantasies, such as ‘Shakspere, the first modern man’ or ‘Austen, the proto-Feminist.’

Ultimately though, I enjoyed your articles because they (to my mind) correctly located the SAQ within the wider gamut of ‘subjugated knowledge’ and accurately described its stance within Western literary discourse as ‘insurrectionary.’ I had myself noted in most SAQ articles the kind of naïveté you refer to, with regard to what is simplistically termed the ‘Stratfordian’ position and its attachment to Shakspere’s ‘candidacy.’ Although I continue to enjoy the myriad focal points of research within the SAQ, I was glad to see that someone was at last suggesting that since mainstream literary discourse is a discourse of exceptionalism, non-Stratfordians shouldn’t hold their breath about finding large numbers of mainstream adherents anytime soon. More particularly, let me say how satisfying it was to see mention of Said, and to see Foucault’s methods and terms employed in service of the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I’ve been thinking of Foucault and Said ever since I became interested in this issue, because for me, the hysteria of the Stratfordian response clearly conceals a core terror of losing hegemonic discursive status in the field of culture and the attendant power to make infantile claims like ‘Shakespeare is the best writer in the world.’ I recall in my childhood, hearing my parents and grandparents rail against the sustained and calculated Imperialist contempt contained in this claim of Shakespeare’s uniqueness, which was of course specifically and continually used to rubbish India’s literary heritage as ‘casteist,’ ‘decadent in its Oriental profusion,’ and too culture-specific to be truly universal.

I might mention, I was brought up to appreciate India’s literary and artistic heritage. Both my parents earned prestigious post-graduate degrees (in Medicine and Engineering) in the UK, but were also richly schooled in their own literary traditions (in fact, until she passed away in 2015 at the age of 87, my mother continued to quote freely from 16th century Marathi poetry as well as 1st century BCE Sanskrit drama). I myself have studied North Indian traditional music, which, interestingly, has a long-standing tradition of pseudonymity, considered to be a sort of ‘noblesse oblige’ gesture of ‘open secret’ authorship… And when I studied in Mumbai for a BA in English lit, I often complained loudly and bitterly about Shakspere continuing to serve as archaic figurehead of British Colonial cultural propaganda (even in the 80s and 90s).

Gauri Vishwanathan’s work becomes highly relevant in this regard and I was delighted to see her early work mentioned in your article. I am not sure if she’s been as courageous an anti-Imperialist scholar subsequently, but her work about British education policies in India as well as your Macaulay quote were very heartening to see. Viswanathan’s admirable thesis Masks of Conquest examines how in India, culture intersected with and reinforced empire. Viswanathan’s book elucidates how colonial education policies in nineteenth-century India sought to neutralize ‘native’ rebellion and create a class of reliable bureaucrats, and how English literature, particularly, was mobilized to inspire in the ‘natives’ an enduring respect for their rulers. I had myself considered the issue of colonial education through the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a figure notorious among pro-Independence fighters like my mother and grandparents, for his unproblematically racist, vituperative dismissal of Indian culture. Macaulay, a key adviser to William Bentinck in the enactment of education policies in India, was infamous for having said that although he had “…no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic…,” it took him just a few translations and conversations with Orientalists to conclude (in a way curiously reminiscent of the Stratford man’s knowledge of Italy gleaned from chats with travellers in a pub), that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” As it happens, Macaulay, in the following passage from his oft-quoted 1835 Minute on Education, after referring to the “intrinsic superiority of the Western literature,” quite brilliantly connects the Stratford man to our vestigially colonial construct ‘Indian writer’:

Had our ancestors (…) neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, – would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments – in history for example – I am certain that it is much less so.

What we see here, so neatly encapsulated, is the fact that Shakespeare (as wise Renaissance ‘ancestor’ from the age of ‘More and Ascham’) speaks directly to India, with the full glory of the Classics shining, in turn, upon him. Indeed, Shakespeare and his ilk not only direct the sublimating light of Latin and Greek influences upon the English language, they also help to transmute England into an empire by awakening an erstwhile “barbarous” Saxon-Norman people to their neo-Classical Imperial destiny. Macaulay thus sees the English not only as the carriers of an exceptional literature (towards India’s hapless ‘natives’), but as doing so within the unfolding telos of unparalleled Imperial grandeur. As such, Shakespeare (with others in the colonial curriculum) becomes empire. And his centrality in canonical perspectives on literature means that Indian writing too comes to be immovably fixed in that Imperial gorgon gaze. Speaking personally, I feel indebted to Macaulay, not so much for casually denigrating (and almost decimating) the extraordinarily rich and diverse culture of my ancestors, but for so succinctly, in this one paragraph, mapping a perfect center-periphery line, with its zenith/source in Stratford (chez Shakespeare) and its nadir/terminus in Bombay (or Calcutta or Madras or even the immigrant’s America, wherever is ‘home’ for the ‘Indian writer’). Macaulay clarifies further, when he speaks of the elite Anglicized population he wishes to engender through British education policy: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (emphasis added) And here we see the nascence of that all-important type – the ‘Indian writer’ – as privileged and “co-operative native” (to paraphrase Macaulay), and of the tacit Imperialist pact this kind of writer is asked to make when he/she represents an eternally backward India to the West, which in turn, via Shakespeare, represents itself as eternally exalted (West) to the world. Refuse that sacred covenant and you’re consigned to the ‘sick and pale’ lunar periphery, there to carve out a reputation with other (presumably) ‘envious’ outcasts who publish, print (even illustrate) their own (and others’) books – distinguished ‘losers’ like William Blake, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain (only a coincidence surely, that two of them also doubted the Stratford creed).

But what of all this is specific to Stratford, you may ask? Why, in this account, must Shakespeare necessarily be the ‘Stratford man’? Well, fascinatingly (and unsurprisingly), I find that the Orientalist moorings of Shakespeare as nineteenth-century Imperialist figurehead do absolutely require that he be the ‘Everyman-No man’ of Stratford and not a historical figure – particularly someone burdened with uncomfortable associations like violence of temper, marital infidelity, continental/Catholic tastes and hyper-stratified feudal-social privilege (à la Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford). After all, within the exceptionalist narrative Imperial Britain sought to establish for itself vis-à-vis India (and indeed continental Europe), the (supposed) common-sense egalitarianism of its history and people was a core focus, and to this day, is a theme that serves routinely to distinguish the West from India’s (supposedly) ‘caste-ridden’ backwardness. In other words, for Shakespeare to ‘work’ in an Imperial context, it was (and remains) imperative that he represent “the purer, cleaner literature of England” over the “basically immoral and sensuous” forms of Oriental literature. Simply put, the Shakspere/Oxford binary itself highlights the fundamental themes of a Colonial-Orientalist script: with an aristocratic, profligate, ardent, violently rebellious Oxford playing the part of the ‘decadent Oriental,’ and Shakspere of Stratford donning the garb of the quintessential, impecunious ‘middle-class English Everyman,’ with his ‘sound Protestant Bible principles.’

The terms used to disparage the Earl’s character and poems resemble in many ways the kinds of judgments made by British critics in the nineteenth century with regard to Indian art, when it was deemed fundamentally unfit for universal admiration, given its ‘decadence,’ ‘profusion/prolixity’ and ‘immorality.’ I have been personally struck by the sheer force of contempt and revulsion directed at Edward de Vere and how startlingly this evokes early denigrations of Indian art and literature (along with of course, other forms of non-European art, safely dismissed as ‘naïve’ and ‘primitive’). It is truly ironic that you still see this kind of condemnation of de Vere along with surprise at why on earth he would choose to publish under a pseudonym. It never seems to strike anyone that the derision expressed in his time at his profusive Italianate tastes may have extended to mockery of the kind of frank and personal poetry he was writing in the Sonnets, and indeed of the distinctly continental, Catholic-leaning, florid panache of his plays, and that this might have something to do with it! In fact, it seems not to come to anyone’s notice that this kind duality – personal frankness in one’s literary content and prolixity and ornament in one’s style – continues to be judged in exceedingly harsh terms by the Western literary academy.

For this reason, it is Joyce, not Céline, who enjoys the status of ‘greatest novelist of the twentieth century,’ when in fact Céline arguably had a vastly greater influence on twentieth century writers than did Joyce. After all, it is clipped ‘objective’ ‘Puritan’ self-control one seeks in the novel, without either excess of ornament or personal historical detail. Thackeray’s most enjoyable but shambolic prose, with its rich autobiographical detail about an identifiably historicized, racist, classist, sexist, Colonizing England can never, for this reason, partake of the kind of abject idolatry you see directed at the plain-speaking, dehistoricizing, naïvely patriotic, myopic plotter that is Jane Austen. Kerouac, Henry Miller, the Beats – none of them received the kind of academic recognition they deserved, because of this same duality in their writing, and if you happen to admire them as a writer and to locate your style within their sphere of influence, well, you’re doomed.

In this sense then, an Oxfordian reading of Shakespeare also constitutes an attack on what is essentially an eighteenth-century petty bourgeois parochialism in the Western literary institution’s criteria for deciding what is deemed ‘great art’ (or conversely, that personal content + stylistic profusion = primitive, aka non-white/decadent/feminine art). I have often said to my brother, Gopal Mukerjee (also a writer, as I mentioned), that were it to be proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, the entire Academic world would turn its back on the Works, because to recognize Oxford as true author would not only hit at core tenets of Western exceptionalism, it would also hack away at a heavily Enlightenment-influenced, Puritan-bourgeois, Anglo-Saxon distrust of the individual artist him/herself. It would signify that literary content and style might belong at last to the truly free writer and not to the academy. It would level the global cultural field and make room at last for true individuality, instead of everyone having to conform to the tired diktats of a tastelessly profit-obsessed, ungenerous and mediocre ‘Culture Industry’ (to borrow from Adorno).

Thus, I find that the SAQ has truly extraordinary insurrectionary potentialities, because it hits at a deeply ingrained Puritan-Eurocentric, Woman-hating atavism in the Western institutional field of ‘Literature’ itself. And that as such, with ‘smoking gun’ in hand or no, the SAQ community with its brave, conscientious, tremendously civil and eloquent effort at locating the truth, will serve to liberate the voice of not just one passing singular odd man of the sixteenth century, but all ‘singular’ and ‘odd’ literary voices everywhere.

Sources

Arnold, M., & Garnett, J. (2006). Culture and anarchy (Oxford world’s classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lahiri, J. (1999). “The Namesake.” Interpreter of maladies : Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, “Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835,” Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839), Edited by H. Sharp (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117) paragraphs 10-34. Web.

Viswanathan, G. (2015). Masks of conquest : Literary study and british rule in india(Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. ed., Oxford india paperbacks). New York: Columbia University Press.

[Image: India Today, August 16th 2014. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/the-complete-works-of-william-shakespeare-play-gurgaon-julius-ceasar/1/377340.html]

About the author

Amita Mukerjee is a writer and publisher who lives and works in Paris, France. Amita grew up in India and moved briefly with her family to the UK and US, before returning to Mumbai in her teens and going on to graduate with a BA in English Literature and a Sangeet Visharad (Bachelor of Music) in North Indian Classical (Vocal) Music. She then received an MA in Translation and Interpretation in Monterey, California, after which she spent ten years working as a professional Translator/Interpreter in Paris, for governmental, international and private sector organizations. Her first novel Ugly Duckling describes those years. In 2002, she quit to become a full-time writer and in 2007, created (with her brother, Gopal Mukerjee as Co-Founder) the publishing company Revenge Ink, whose avowed aim was to focus on new writers and challenge prevalent discourse on all things ‘literary.’ The project met with little financial success, but Amita was nonetheless able to publish eleven authors and fifteen books. Although currently dormant, the company has not closed its doors.

Book Review: Surviving Canada

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Published Saturday July 29th 2017 in the Winnipeg Free Press.

On June 29, in the days leading up to Canada’s mega-hyped sesquicentennial anniversary, a “re-occupation” ceremony unfolded on Parliament Hill in which a teepee was erected by protesters led by Bawaating Water protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in order to remind Canadians that their capital city sits on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory.

In much the same way, Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal is an effort to “re-occupy” the Canadian mind, especially our public discourses concerning not just Indigenous issues but the very nature of our country.

Through an eclectic and highly provocative collection of essays, speeches, poems and multimedia (including tweets) from the country’s leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, thinkers and creators, this book challenges the reader to look beyond the anniversary and to question almost everything we’ve ever been taught about the origins, actions and moral foundations of the Canadian nation-state.

With this latest release, Winnipeg’s ARP Books — which also recently published Aqueduct by Adele Perry and the edited collections The Winter We Danced and The Land We Are — strengthens its reputation for publishing some of the most significant literature on Indigenous-Canada relations.

The editors are both with the University of Manitoba. Kiera Ladner (Cree) — who previously edited ARP’s 2010 book This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades — is an associate professor in political studies who has since 2011 led the university’s Mamawipawin, or Indigenous Governance and Community Based Research Space. Her co-editor Myra Tait (Anishinaabekwe) is a master’s student in law and member of Berens River First Nation who is also associated with Mamawipawin.

Ladner and Tait have assembled an impressive and diverse array of contributors whose 42 pieces fill more than 460 pages. A review such as this is scarcely adequate to describe the scope and content of the material in Surviving Canada. However, the book’s cover — which depicts an inverted maple leaf flag — is an apt metaphor for its purpose: any self-aggrandizing notions the reader might hold regarding Canada’s history are swiftly disabused.

Surviving Canada may already be best-known for its inclusion of the incredibly powerful poem, Canada, I Can Cite for You 150 by Christi Belcourt (Métis), which has been widely shared online. But all of its entries are equally potent.

Among the book’s most provocative essays: Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi [Cherokee]) and Christine Bird (Anishinaabekwe) accuse Canada of being a “serial killer” and all of us complicit in its crimes against Indigenous peoples, in particular women, girls, Two Spirit and queer people; James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (Chikasaw and Cheyenne) explains how the confederation we know as Canada illegitimately assumed authority over — but then proceeded to ignore — Indigenous treaties with the British Crown dating back to 1621, resulting in “intractable gaps in (our) constitutional narrative;” and Jana-Rae Yerxa’s (Anishinaabekwe) disturbing creative non-fiction piece Her in which she describes rooms of white people haunted by a laughing spectral Indigenous woman with a noose around her neck.

Non-Indigenous authors include Louise Mandell, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who compares Canada’s dehumanization of Indigenous peoples to that of the Nazis against the Jews, calling both “radical evil;” the University of Manitoba’s Adele Perry, who offers a one-chapter treatment of her book Aqueduct detailing the century of legal and environmental injustice inflicted on Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in order to provide Winnipeg’s drinking water; and University of Guelph political scientist David MacDonald writing about most Canadians’ studied ignorance and amnesia about the genocidal foundations of their settler state, calling instead for open commemoration of this genocide.

While Ladner and Tait encourage the reader to approach the chapters in any sequence they wish, it might have been equally interesting had they organized the readings thematically. As well, it’s unfortunate that the book’s contributors and their backgrounds are not described in a dedicated section as is customary for edited collections. Instead, one is referred to the publisher’s website for their biographies — fruitlessly, as it turns out.

Small matters such as these cannot, however, detract from the gut-punching impact of Surviving Canada. By turns eloquent, scholarly, bitter, profound and angry — yet at times hopeful — this is a deeply discomfiting and significant book.

Tipis on Mars: Considering Canada’s Cultural Appropriation Controversy Through Futures Studies

Upon learning of Hal Niedzviecki’s appalling Write op-ed introducing a special issue of Indigenous writing (in which he exhorted his fellow [presumably non-Indigenous] authors to appropriate other cultures for their own writing), I immediately recognized that the controversy had implications for my own work. At the end of this month, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) I will deliver a paper based on my recent article “Seeing the Forest for the Trees on Mars: Locating the Ideology of the Library of the Future” which was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship. The paper relies heavily on Niedzviecki’s 2015 book, Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future  for its analysis, but in light of the controversy, and as a non-Indigenous librarian responsible for Indigenous Studies collections and services, I felt my use of his writings was now rendered problematic to say the least.

My concerns only deepened in the following days as many leading voices in Canadian journalism (including Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s “The National”) tweeted their support for Niedzvecki, and even pledged their own money to fund an actual “cultural appropriation prize.”  Niedzvecki, to his credit, disavowed this Twitter campaign on his Facebook page, writing, “calls for an actual ‘appropriation prize’ are extremely unhelpful. They do not represent me in any way.” On CBC’s The Current, Niedzviecki also apologized, admitting,

I invited Indigenous writers into my house, so to speak, and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn’t mean to insult them. That wasn’t my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened.

Nevertheless, Niedzviecki’s op-ed unleashed a cultural firestorm that will surely be recognized for years to come as a turning point in Canadian letters. The negative reaction to his words was – to all but himself apparently – unsurprisingly swift, particularly from several of the Indigenous contributors to the special Write  issue itself. Niedzviecki was called out online for his ignorance in treating the issue of cultural appropriation so glibly, when for Indigenous peoples — who have endured not just cultural genocide but have had their cultures both belittled and casually strip-mined by non-Indigenous artists, writers and designers for aesthetic or fashion statements – it is a matter of their very survival. As Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe) argued in the Globe and Mail,

For native people, art and culture are not separate. The art of the West Coast carver is inseparable from their heritage. Same with Inuit sculpture and Cree beading. Anything that infringes upon our art can be considered a direct threat to our culture. So understandably, Indigenous people react. The charge is cultural appropriation. For us it’s a matter of cultural preservation.

The fallout from the Twitter campaign was if anything even more fierce and compelling. Shree Paradkar, writing in the Toronto Star argued that we all need to care about cultural appropriation calling it a “medium of oppression.” While some (mostly white) critics bemoaned the debate as a PC-run-amok attack on freedom of expression, Scaachi Koul writing at Buzzfeed condemned the conflation of literary imagination with appropriation:

I can’t believe I have to f****** say this, but no one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction. Frankly, we encourage it. …Abstaining from cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop you from writing thoughtfully about people who aren’t white. It does, however, stop you from ripping off people of colour, or pretending like you understand their stories intimately. It does preclude you from taking a culture that was never yours to begin with — a culture that might have made the lives of the people born with it harder in white Canada, or might mean they don’t get the same opportunities and privileges — and turning a profit.

Write contributor Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) stressed that the elite class claiming  the right to “free speech”  in the matter were deliberately ignoring the brutal context of Canada’s suppression of Indigenous people:

[F]orgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t…They don’t live with its intergenerational trauma the way we do. They never will.

Veteran journalist and teacher Andrew Mitrovica was equally outraged, saying that these journalists had “besmirched their work, reputations and cultural heritage, and made it plain to future generations of Indigenous and minority journalists where [their] allegiance lies.” At times, the response was also heartbreaking. Indigenous critic Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) blasted the “remarkable arrogance” of the journalists tweeting their support, and broke down in tears saying,

These things can’t happen again. This absorbs so much energy, it causes so much pain in our community, to have to re-argue for our value as human beings, on our own land? In a foreign language as I do to you now, one that was imposed on us? Please. What are we talking about in 2017…If anything this proves our strength as a community and our endurance. Don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me. I hope to never do this again.

As the scale of this national debate expanded, I felt a particular and urgent need — and responsibility — to address this controversy, before I could presume to privilege Niedzviecki’s ideas in a scholarly forum. To do this, I would like to use several theories from futures studies that Niedzviecki would have been wise to have included in Trees on Mars.

In my essay and upcoming conference paper, my use of Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars focuses largely on his discourse analysis in the fields of education and economics; that, in his view, our culture’s anxiety-ridden obsession with the future is all about the individualized (rather than collective) goal of shaping, owning and seizing the future through “disruptive” entrepreneurial innovation, with the concomitant belief that we must do away with anything that impedes access to the future.

While I noted in my CJAL article similarities between this discourse and much of the LIS literature regarding the “library of the future,” what struck me as a major blind spot on the part of Niedzviecki was that never once does he use the term neoliberalism when so much of what he discusses is clearly consistent with this ideology. Since writing the piece I have further come to realize that he also appears to have embarked on his inquiries without the necessary theoretical grounding in futures studies itself, with the result that he was unable to sufficiently situate his analysis — or, more significantly, recognize the implications it should have had for his editorship of the Indigenous issue of Write.

For example, futures studies scholar Barbara Adam  writing in the journal Twenty-First Century Society observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else, and therefore requires an ethical stance (88). It also changes the very nature of the future, emptying it of content and precedent, where exchange value is paramount:

The underlying principle of the pervasive change is to replace contextuality and embeddedness with decontextualised and disembedded relations in order to create a world of pure potential that is subject to human design and where anything is possible (55).

Another futurist,  Islamic scholar Ziaudden Sardar recognizes this as a colonizing force in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182).

For someone who devoted so many pages in Trees on Mars to critiquing a discourse of owning and seizing, Niedzviecki was stunningly oblivious to how appropriation also a form of taking. As Kate Taylor observed in the Globe and Mail,

Niedzviecki [is] guilty of the same kind of privileged creative assumption: that there’s a vast sea of images, ideas, stories and experiences out there and imaginative voyagers should be encouraged to pluck from it whatever flotsam they please. 

When Niedzviecki wrote that there was “nothing preventing us…from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends oral histories and sacred practices into our own works” he was essentially stating that the sacred knowledges of the world’s Indigenous peoples can be treated, as Adam and Groves put it, “as a resource for our use in the present [to] transform…to our will and desire [and] shape to our designs and intentions…as a realm of pure potential.” Indigenous knowledge, literature and culture may be reduced to its exchange value, stripped of context and embeddedness, and placed in whatever context may be imagined for it — tipis on Mars, if you will. That this appropriation would be at the hands of unfettered non-Indigenous writers with no relationship to such knowledge can only accelerate what Sardar calls the “built-in western momentum” of monocultural, colonized thought.

Yet, such efforts at disembeddedness run contrary to the very essence of Indigenous knowledge. At a Walrus magazine event over the weekend in Surrey, lawyer and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Alan Mills (Anishinaabe) affirmed this view, saying:

No one can appropriate my stories,…Not because I’m an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories. They’re of my relatives – humans, animals, plants, spirits; all alive. They’re not part of an intellectual commons just waiting to be brought to life by your particular unique imagination. To be able to tell the story is a beautiful gift and if it is given to you, it’s because it is already known that you will be grateful, that you will reciprocate.

Mr. Niedzviecki’s epistemological shortsightedness in both Trees on Mars and his Write op-ed was that he was relying on his own “particular unique imagination.” Had he read deeper into theories of futures studies before he wrote an entire book about it, he might have gained some pretty clear insights into his own positioning as a non-Indigenous creator with power over others, and the jarring irreconcilability of his notions regarding appropriation and the vitality of Indigenous writing. That much of Canada`s literary and journalistic intelligentsia followed his misguided call so enthusiastically reveals the extent to which they are profoundly steeped in colonial values and culture, and suggests that the pathway to our country`s own reconciled future will require very different cultural leadership.

Coda

On Wednesday May 17th the Globe and Mail  reported that a crowd funded literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers launched in response to the cultural appropriation controversy had raised more than $30,000.

On the same day, it was also announced that Steve Ladurantaye had been “reassigned” from his responsibilities at “The National.”

Literature Cited

Adam, B. (June 01, 2008). Future matters: futures known, created and minded. Twenty-first Century Society, 3, 2, 111-116.

Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2007). Future matters: Action, knowledge, ethics. Leiden: Brill.

Sardar, Z. (April 01, 2010). The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?. Futures, 42, 3, 177-184.

Algorithms Don’t Think About Race. So Tech Giants Need To.

Recently, during a presentation to an audience of library professionals — all of whom (including myself) happened to be white — regarding subject access concerning gender and sexuality, I demonstrated variations describing major North American racial categories across three databases.

One of the participants spoke up. “I find those offensive,” she said. “Why do we need to think about race? I don’t think it’s relevant!” I was a bit taken aback by her response, as both the previous speaker and myself had addressed the theme of intersectionality — how we’re not just men, women, trans, white, black, Indigenous, able-bodied, straight, gay etc. but that we’re all combinations of all of these factors. Several other audience members joined me in pointing out that many people are directly and negatively affected because of how society responds to their race, so yes, it is an important factor that we need to discuss. Indeed, argued one participant, the very absence of diverse faces in the room was likely a symptom of structural racism.

“I just don’t get that!” She countered. “I don’t think about race, I just don’t. It’s not important!” The conversation continued for a few minutes and I managed to steer the presentation back to the slides I’d prepared, but the woman — still clearly agitated – -got up and left shortly afterwards.

Her response isn’t unusual: any open discussion of race is often met with hostile reaction from whites who counter that merely raising the issue is itself racist. I realized afterwards that what I should have more clearly articulated is that the intention of such a discussion is not to accuse anyone of being a racist, but rather to acknowledge that because we are all socialized within a structurally racialized system, we are all affected by race whether we say we think about it or not. Having just discussed it earlier, I should also have in particular referred back to Sanford Berman’s work on Library of Congress Subject Headings to show how structural racism in the real world can get reproduced in the language of library catalogues, databases and search engines.

This latter phenomenon has gained increasing attention over the past year as journalists and activists have documented apparent bias in mainstream search engines. In the middle of 2016, a viral YouTube video demonstrated how a search for “three black teenagers” resulted primarily in pictures of criminal suspects, while the same search for white teenagers showed happy, well-dressed young people. In a related story from later that year, a British journalist named Carol Cadwalladr typed in the start of racially-oriented questions into Google and got appalling results from the site’s auto-complete feature:

[Google] offered me a choice of potential questions it thought I might want to ask: “are jews a race?”, “are jews white?”, “are jews christians?”, and finally, “are jews evil?” Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of asking. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter. A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen, was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which “confirm” this.

I decided to try some related searches myself, and was equally disgusted with the results:

google_blm

bing_blm2At the same time, I was working on updating my University Library’s research guide on Race, Racialization and Racism, and decided to link to some recent video content regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Heading over to YouTube, I typed in “Black Lives Matter” and was soon shocked at what I saw: page after page after virulent page of videos — most of which featuring white speakers — that were blatantly anti-BLM, calling it “hateful” the “new KKK,” “racist” and a “terrorist organization.” (I am deliberately not providing links to these videos).

The prominence of such content in Google’s and YouTube’s search results is based on algorithms predicated on popularity and the needs of advertisers, not relevance, accuracy or reasonableness. While such results may be considered by users to be authoritative and “the truth,” as media and cinema studies scholar Safiya Umoja Noble writes,

[i]t is dominant narratives about the objectivity and popularity of web search results that make misogynist or racist search results appear to be natural. Not only do they seem “normal” due to the technological blind spots of users who are unable to see the commercial interests operating in the background of search (deliberately obfuscated from their view), they also seem completely unavoidable because of the perceived “popularity” of sites as the factor that lifts websites to the top of the results’ pile. Furthermore, general belief in myths of digital democracy emblematized in Google and its search results means that users of Google give consent to the algorithms’ legitimacy through their continued use of the product, despite its ineffective inclusion of websites that are decontextualized from social meaning, and Google’s wholesale abandonment of responsibility for its search results.

The potentially lethal consequences of this kind of abandonment were made starkly clear following the trial of Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering nine people in the hope of launching a race war, when it was revealed that his goal was set in motion by his immersion in racist Internet articles:

Roof’s radicalization began, as he later wrote in an online manifesto, when he typed the words “black on White crime” into Google and found what he described as “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.” The first web pages he found were produced by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a crudely racist group that once called black people a “retrograde species of humanity.” Roof wrote that he has “never been the same since that day.” As he delved deeper, because of the way Google’s search algorithm worked, he was immersed in hate materials. Google says its algorithm takes into account how trustworthy, reputable or authoritative a source is. In Roof’s case, it clearly did not.

Facebook, too, has run into trouble for its reliance on algorithms, with the result that users are faced with ubiquitous “fake news” originating on the far right, compounded by its decision to eschew a tag for Black Lives Matter:

While Facebook has attempted to profess that algorithms are somehow neutral, many people have pointed out that an algorithm also represents an editorial decision—the instructions that coders pour into it are just as subject to human values and bias as other choices.

In much the same way that accusing individuals of racism misses the larger point, we need to recognize that tech giants such as Google and Facebook aren’t deliberately, consciously racisthowever, by basing their operations on supposedly “neutral” algorithms that don’t account for structural racism in the broader society, they can’t help but occasionally produce racialized results — with sometimes deadly consequences.

To address this, more curation is required on the part of tech companies. Search engines should not be auto-suggesting racist search queries, negatively portraying racial groups with image results, front-loading blatantly racist videos in response to a general query or immersing users in racist content without balancing results from anti-racist websites. Just as claiming one doesn’t think about race is in fact a decision to think a certain way about race, so too are claims of algorithm neutrality.

Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds

At a time when horrifically violent footage of beheadings, school shootings and acts of terrorism can go viral within hours, it may seem difficult for some to appreciate the seismic shock of the gradual, decades-long release of the Zapruder film.

From its appearance as selected still frames in the pages of Life magazine the week following former president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to its television debut 12 years later on Geraldo Rivera’s show Good Night America, to its climactic role in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second 8mm home movie is not only a hotly contested touchstone for analyzing the assassination, but a culturally significant landmark in its own right.

Released for the 53rd anniversary of the events in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Alexandra Zapruder’s new book is not just the poignant story of one man’s reluctant place in history but a fascinating and often profound exploration of artifacts, visual culture and the esthetics of violence that goes to the heart of understanding how the mysterious death of the 35th president forever changed American society.

Formerly an educator and researcher with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Zapruder is the award-winning author of 2004’s Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. As she writes in the opening pages of her new book, she grew up knowing about her grandfather’s famous film, but it was rarely discussed, an uncomfortable family history she only began to uncover for herself in 2010.

Zapruder’s account is at once personal, historical and critical, to say nothing of the fact it’s beautifully written. Even without her family connections to the subject matter, the book would be a valuable contribution to the assassination literature.

After all, despite its two-generation remove, Twenty-Six Seconds presents the perspective of a family so inextricably linked to the events of Nov. 22, 1963 they were paid $150,000 by Lifebefore Kennedy was even buried, $85,000 by Oliver Stone in 1990 and a further $16 million by the U.S. government in 1999 to compensate them for formally “taking” their film, once the Assassinations Records Review Board determined it to be an official assassination record.

Despite her unique vantage point to this vital assassination artifact, Zapruder was, by her own admission, almost completely unfamiliar with the assassination itself until she started working on the book. Through interviews with her family, participants in the film’s complex chain of possession and conspiracy theorists (her use of the term is respectful and non-pejorative), as well as her unprecedented access to the Time-Life archives, Zapruder recounts the film’s traumatizing genesis, as well as the many crucial years it spent under the tight control of Time-Life, which did so much to contribute to the growing suspicions of a coverup through the 1960s and early 1970s.

Public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s “lone assassin” conclusions would become almost mainstream once Rivera broadcast his bootleg copy of the film on TV, and grew so insistent following its use in Stone’s JFK that Congress passed the JFK Records Act in 1992 and created the review board, which would lead to years-long negotiations to buy the film back from the Zapruders.

Zapruder raises a host of compelling questions about institutions of memory and the right to know: Should a government be permitted to retain ownership of artifacts when they raise troubling questions about that government? Is there a danger in conflating a record of an event with the event itself? What is of greater value — the content of an image or the physicality of the media on which it exists? Can an artifact be of such unique public interest it should be considered public domain?

There are some questions, however, she refuses to consider, namely those relating to the film’s authenticity: Zapruder repugnantly dismisses long-standing claims of alteration in the extant film, in particular those which see her grandfather colluding in the coverup. Viewed along with accusations in the media the family unduly profited from the tragedy, it becomes clear that from the moment it was exposed, the film was always a terrible burden haunting Abraham Zapruder and his family, one which his granddaughter’s eloquent prose can only partially exorcise.

Twenty-Six Seconds is therefore not just of interest for its history, but for what it tells us about ourselves: given the prevalence of smartphone cameras and the news media’s increasing dependence on citizen-generated footage, all of us have, in a sense, become the heirs of Abe Zapruder.

Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
By Alexandra Zapruder
Twelve, 472 pages, $35

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, November 19th 2016

Book Review: A Field Guide to Lies

In a U.S. election cycle already replete with outrageous claims from the Donald Trump campaign, the tweet by Trump’s son Donald Jr. was particularly egregious: the now-notorious image of a bowl of Skittles representing Syrian refugees accompanied by the claim that three of them would kill you.

While many criticized the callousness of the metaphor, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out that to have a shred of comparability for the individualized risk implied, the bowl would need to contain 10.9 billion skittles.

It is illogical arguments such as this that McGill psychology and behavioural neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin seeks to debunk in this useful but disappointingly apolitical new book A Field Guide to Lies. Serving as a sort of companion to his 2014 information overload corrective The Organized Mind, (reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press August 23rd 2014), the Field Guide provides the tools needed to critically evaluate dubious claims, both numeric and verbal.

For Levitin, the failure to question what we read (especially online) combined with poor statistical literacy and an overconfidence in our own knowledge can lead us to make poor decisions, draw the wrong conclusions, and misestimate the actual risk of activities (e.g., flying).

The first third of the book introduces the reader to numeric and statistical claims by explaining the slippery definitions of “average,” how to understand different types of probabilities and the many ways in which graphs and tables can be manipulated to convince the unwary. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, notoriously concealed dropping quarterly iPhone market share in 2013 by charting cumulative sales on a graph with no numeric value scale, leading analysts unsure if it referred to millions of phones or thousands.

In the second part, Levitin looks at the rhetorical claims and logical fallacies perpetrated by experts and others in the media who often cherry-pick their data, erroneously imply causation or fail to inform their readers or listeners of reasonable alternative explanations. The six-fold rise in autism diagnoses between 1990 and 2010, he argues, can be much more readily attributed to greater awareness and wider definitions on the part of professionals, than it can to GMOs, wi-fi or vaccines.

The final and by far weakest part of the book are “case studies” intended to illustrate how to apply these critical tools, but which gets bogged down in a tiresome analysis of the extreme feats of illusionist David Blaine, leaving far more pressing issues unexamined.

As was the case with The Organized Mind, Levitin’s excellent grasp of analytical tools and rhetorical logic are undermined by a curious lack of political sophistication. Most of his examples are hypothetical or else attributed to unnamed “lying weasels” and “unscrupulous hucksters” while avoiding anything that might be potentially partisan (Trump and Hillary Clinton are each referred to only once).

This is unfortunate. He could have easily delved into the emerging psychological research revealing how political ideologies shape our receptivity to information, such that liberals and conservatives when faced with the same sets of facts will often reach completely different conclusions – a discussion that would have been exceedingly timely.

Instead, Levitin’s political myopia is so jarring it threatens at times to undermine his entire project.

For example, the disparity between (low) official estimates of civilian deaths in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when compared to those of third-party observers is owed by Levitin not to political expediency but to calculating an unknowable quantity, while the Bush Administration was simply “mistaken” about the presence of WMDs in Iraq, rather than engaging (as many critics allege) in a deliberate campaign of deception.

In the book’s most jaw-dropping passage, he casually brushes aside the countless discrepancies in the official account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by likening these to the occasional headache accompanied by blurred vision: probably not an indication of anything serious.

While A Field Guide to Lies may help readers make better sense of news reports and be wiser consumers, Levitin’s failure to situate his book in the contemporary politics of “truthiness” dramatically diminishes its value – and relevance. As a result, it unintentionally demonstrates that, absent an understanding of ideology and power, no amount of statistical literacy and formal logic will help you recognize that you are being lied to.

 

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
By Daniel Levitin.
Allen Lane/Penguin/Random House, $20.00. 292 pp.

 

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 15th 2016

Book Review: Indigenous Writes

In 2013, the Thompson Citizen shut down its Facebook page to deny a platform for, in the words of editor John Barker, “anti-aboriginal racists and haters (to) spew their evil.” Similarly, in late November 2015, the CBC suspended all comments for articles and features related to indigenous issues, citing the frequency of “hateful, vitriolic (and) ignorant” comments. (For its part, the Winnipeg Free Press restricts commenting privileges to subscribers only).

In the face of this public bigotry and ignorance, Chelsea Vowel wants to help shape our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians by engaging us in a badly needed, non-confrontational and — most of all — respectful conversation.

 

In her meticulously organized and highly accessible new book Indigenous Writes, Vowel, a Cree-speaking Métis writer and educator based in Montreal, both addresses and demolishes the many myths, misconceptions and stereotypes that have for so long poisoned public discourse and done endless harm to indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Writes is the latest release in Portage & Main Press’ Debwe series edited by the University of Manitoba’s Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair. While her title is a play on words which can be read several ways, it powerfully underscores Vowel’s agency as an indigenous author, which is consistent with Debwe’s mandate.

Over 31 brief chapters, Vowel maintains a personal and frequently humorous tone as she engages directly with non-indigenous readers (such as this reviewer) — or, more accurately, those “who form the European-descended socio-political majority,” with the recognition that the descendants of African slaves cannot be seen as “settlers.”

Such concern over naming might seem pedantic, but it is this care in establishing the basis for the conversation at hand that characterizes her thoughtful approach in responding to the misunderstandings over which our nations-to-nation relationships have foundered.

Many of these, she is quick to point out, are not entirely our fault: Canada’s history of colonization and assimilation through unequal treaty-making, unjust legislation, obfuscation and racialized oppression is bewilderingly (and in her view, deliberately) confusing. Much as she does on her outstanding blog, âpihtawikosisân, issues such as status and non-status Indians, “blood quantum,” the treaties, indigenous identity, cultural appropriation, rights and legal decisions on aboriginal titles are explained and clarified, often by contextualizing these within the legal foundations and rights enjoyed by non-indigenous Canadians.

More importantly, a host of pernicious myths are assiduously debunked, chief among them that aboriginal people pay no taxes. As she makes abundantly clear, the Indian Act tax exemption for on-reserve income and property is enjoyed by a mere 192,000 people, or 0.5 per cent of the population — hardly an undue burden on non-indigenous taxpayers who have, needless to say, benefited beyond all conventional financial measures from access to indigenous lands.

Significantly, she counters not just the common bread-and-butter arguments of misinformed anonymous commenters, but the writings of well-known Canadian media personalities such as Conrad Black, the Province’s Gordon Clark and public intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul.

Fortunately, Vowel is able to call on her law degree to provide easily understood explanations and contexts for the general reader, supported by extensive lists of recommended reading.

Yet it is all accomplished with such disarming informality and even nerdiness (she is a fan of Canadian science-fiction author Rob Sawyer and the Civilization video games) that the book is unabashedly engaging. In a brilliantly satiric turn, she even adopts the rhetoric of the online trolls themselves to demonstrate the colonial vapidity of the arguments so often made against inherent indigenous rights.

While subtitled A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, it would be a mistake to see Indigenous Writes as a book primarily about indigenous people. Instead, it is much more about all of us — our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians, and how it has been shaped (and misshaped) by the historic and contemporary governance of these issues.

For any Canadian who wishes to have an informed opinion about the country that we share — or, more to the point, publicly share that opinion — Indigenous Writes is essential reading.

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada.
By Chelsea Vowel
HighWater/Portage & Main Press, 240 pages, $22

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday September 24th 2016.

Book Review: “Everything Explained That Is Explainable”

 

1911

The notion that one would physically house all the world’s most essential knowledge at your own house in dozens of identical-looking books would probably strike members of the 21st-century’s “iGeneration” as a tad presumptuous — even ridiculous.

Yet, for the better part of 244 years — from its first edition in 1768 until it went solely online in 2012 — this was the role of the venerable and massive Encyclopaedia Britannica, as indispensable to everyday information-seekers as Google is today.

Of its 15 editions, the most famous is the 1910-1911 11th edition, notable not only for being the first multi-volume encyclopedia to be published as an entire set simultaneously, but also for the literary quality of its entries, written by the leading minds of the day including Darwinian biologist T.H. Huxley, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Where the previous edition’s 17,000 often book-length entries had required considerable studiousness from its readers, the 29-volume 11th, under the editorship of journalist Hugh Chisholm, instead featured 40,000 shorter entries, making it the first truly modern encyclopedia. In fact, so well-regarded is the 11th edition that in 2006, tens of thousands of its articles were uploaded to Wikipedia to augment the online encyclopedia.

In this meanderingly entertaining (if misleadingly titled) book, Denis Boyles recounts the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras of the Britannica, with a focus on the personalities behind it, as well as its publication by the equally venerable newspaper the Times of London before Boston’s Cambridge University Press would take over the reins for the 11th.

A France-based journalist and regular contributor to the National Review, Boyles is best known for writing travelogues and compendiums of miscellany and practical advice aimed at primarily male readers, as well as for his conservative polemics Vile France (2005) andSuperior, Nebraska (2008).

Perhaps attracted to the subject matter by his apparent fascination for trivia, Boyles draws colourful portraits of the Americans who would reinvent Britannica, and in the process revolutionize book marketing: Horace Everett Hooper and fellow bookseller Walter Montgomery Jackson, as well as ad man Henry Haxton.

Boyles’ narrative of the Americans’ audacious 1898 scheme to recruit the troubled Times to reprint and dramatically discount the decades-out-of-date 9th Edition is particularly enjoyable, especially the attention he lavishes on Haxton’s obnoxiously verbose and relentless advertisements — one example, reprinted as an appendix, runs a full eight pages.

The ads may have been annoying but they were wildly successful, making Britannica a household commodity and rescuing the Times from insolvency.

In devoting so much attention to the ninth and 10th editions of Britannica, Boyles adheres surprisingly closely to Herman Kogan’s classic 1958 history of the encyclopedia, The Great EB, which leaves precious little space to devote to his book’s ostensible focus. In fact, the story of the 11th Edition really only gets underway on page 233, occupying the final third of the book.

Boyles shares the conventional understanding that what makes the 11th edition so particularly valued 100 years on is its singular world view born of imperial hubris — that of universal, rational and technological Anglo-led progress — an illusion that would be so decisively destroyed, only a few years later, on the battlefields of Europe.

Yet this sense of a decisive purpose is notably missing from Boyles’ own book, which lacks a formal introduction and devotes two chapters of questionable relevance to various behind-the-scenes machinations at the Times, which actually had nothing whatever to do with publishing the 11th edition.

Everything Explained would also have benefited from a stronger sense of critique. While Boyles acknowledges some of the 11th’s more offensive entries (the shockingly racist “Negro” being only the most notorious), he puts forward no particular perspective or argument of his own, beyond admiration for its literary excellence.

At the same time, his remarkable conclusion that “we can’t say exactly how the Eleventh’s world is different from ours” is belied by his admission that its offences are apparent only in hindsight — which is to say, from the vantage of a postmodern, post-colonial and nominally progressive, yet fragmented, polarized and increasingly fact-averse world, one its authors would hardly recognize.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911.
By Denis Boyles.
Knopf, $36.00. 464 pp.

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 6th 2016.

Photo: Paul Friesen