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I happened to pick up a copy of Mordecai Richler’s This Year in Jerusalem. I won’t have time to read it in the foreseeable future (there are too many books before it on my reading list), but I was leafing through it a little and came across this quotation by Albert Einstein from 1938 on the possibility of a Jewish State. He says,

“I would much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state… my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will suffer — especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks.”

Smart man. Some might say a genius.

I just thought that I should write and express my deep relief that Canada has been winning a few more medals lately. There were a few days there when I was deciding whether to move to the United States, or maybe to Germany, because their much higher medal counts were clearly indicative of an essentially superior way of life. Sure, I thought, we have universal health care; sure, we have a standard of living that consistently ranks among the highest in the world; but what good are these things without Olympic medals. A good country, a really good country, it has Olympic medals, lots of them. This is how you know the good countries from the bad ones.

So I am feeling a little better now that our medal total is growing. Now our ambassadors and peacekeepers and tourists can go to other places in the world without feeling deep shame for the next four years, especially if we win Gold in men’s hockey, which would make our foreign policy so much simpler, at least until the next Olympics. I mean, who is really going to have the guts to stand up against the reigning Olympic Ice Hockey Champions, both men and women. Nobody. We could probably finish up with the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq in a few days, maybe even throw in Israel and Palestine for good measure. I just hope the men do win, for the sake of world peace I mean.

This is why I am so glad that I live in a country that has spent, oh, something like 10 or 12 billion dollars to bring the Olympic Games home, and I am honoured to pay my part of the 3 to 6 billion dollars of the total that will have to come from the tax payers. Honestly, what better way could there have been to spend that money than on the purity of sport and the honour of Canada and the peace of the world? Sure, I know that the whole thing looks like it is driven by advertizing dollars and national hubris, but the essential ideals make it all worthwhile, in the end, I swear.

This coming Monday, March 1st, Michael Hardt will be giving the School of English and Theatre Studies and The TransCanada Institute’s annual lecture at the University of Guelph.  Hardt is a political theorist who has collaborated with Antonio Negri to write several very interesting books, including Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.  The lecture should be well worth your time, though I will not be able to attend it myself, unfortunately.   Details can be found on the University of Guelph Campuis Events Site.

I posted a few weeks ago about the letter I received from the firm of Patton Boggs in regard to my screening of Bill Haney’s The Price of Sugar documentary.  At that time I also contacted the film’s production company about providing a statement to balance the one from Patton Boggs.  They put their lawyer in contact with me, so I have exchanged a few emails with Thomas Curley from the firm of Levin Sullivan Koch & Schulz, and he has just sent me this letter that outlines the position of Bill Haney and Uncommon Productions.  It is three pages rather than forty-five, and it addresses the claims of the Vicini family rather succinctly, so it is worth having a read.

James Shelly posted yesterday on the “greening” of capitalism, and he suggested that we should perhaps replace the idea of smart growth with the idea of smart decline.  This was the first time that I had heard the phrase “smart decline” myself, though it seems already to be in use, particularly by some urban planners, who are using it to describe practises that allow cities to cope with shrinking populations and tax bases.  This kind of usage has to do with managing decline, however, whereas James’ usage has to do with encouraging decline, not in every respect, but in strategic ways, in order to live more responsibly, and it is related to what I have written on doing with and doing without.  It is at odds, therefore, with a green economy that still has growth as its goal, that still understands success as growing production and growing consumption.  It proposes an economy that is willing and even purposing to grow smaller and less consumptive and less productive and sometimes also less technological in order that it be more responsible.

This means, I think, that the choice between whether to do with or to do without becomes weighted heavily in favour of doing without, or at least in favour of doing with much less.  When the choice is to produce or to consume something, an economy of smart decline always chooses to do without it unless there are compelling social and ethical reasons do with it.  It assumes that it is always better to produce and consume and dispose less unless otherwise proven.

Let me give a fairly banal example: whether to do with or without a dishwasher.  Standard green economics says, “Buy an energy efficient and low-water dishwasher.  They use less water than doing dishes by hand.  They are therefore environmentally friendly.  We even have cool logos that say so.  If you buy one, you will be both energy efficient and environmentally aware.  All of your friends will be jealous because you are enviro-hip and because you also have a nice new toy.  You get the best of all worlds.  Consuming green makes you green.”  This is smart growth.  We keep the economy churning, keep producing and consuming, all under the sanctifying label of environmentalism.

Another approach is possible, however, one that might say, “Yes, an energy efficient dishwasher is better than an energy guzzling dishwasher, and it is certainly better when a dishwasher is absolutely required.  Yes, it may even use less water per wash than doing dishes by hand, but washing dishes by hand does not require the huge amounts of input materials and energy that a dishwasher does, and it does not eventually break and result in massive chunks of non-biodegradable waste, and it does not cost the household several hundred dollars to purchase, and it does not alienate the household from its own labour.  Washing dishes by hand may take more time and labour, perhaps, but not much more, and it is time and labour spent in the home rather than spent away in the office in order to pay for a dishwasher.”  This is smart decline.  It both consumes and produces less, wresting time and labour from the workplace and returning it to the home and the community.  It does not understand environmentalism as a product to be purchased like a designer label, but as a lifestyle to be lived, even if it does sometimes require that different products be purchased in different ways.

Of course, if everyone began to live like this, the effect on the economy would be staggering.  There would likely be a massive loss of manufacturing jobs and an equally massive increase in manual labour jobs.  Especially during the period when this shift was occurring, there would be tremendous unemployment and economic hardship.  There would be a shift in the remaining manufacturers toward simpler products that were easier to maintain and repair and retrofit.  There would be much larger local barter and grey market economies.  There would be a return of the repair shop, of the salvage shop, of the used good shop.  There would be an increase in parents who worked in the home some or all of the time.  There would be a resurgence of practical education, in home repair and sewing and cooking and gardening.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, we are not ever likely to see such a systemic shift to an economy of smart decline.  Our long standing economic patterns have produced a culture that is too invested in a particular notion of growth ever to change voluntarily.  I do think, however, that there may come a time, and perhaps not too far into the future, when this decline will be imposed on us, and not in a controlled or gradual way, but in sudden and violent economic shocks, as debt ridden national economies and diminishing resources increasingly disrupt traditional capitalist economies.  It is not possible for the world economy to grow indefinately.  The resources simply do not exist.  One way or another, at one point or another, we will find ourselves in an economy of decline, and maybe it is best to get used to the idea now.

I have always regarded it as positive that the internet as a medium permits its users a greater degree of active participation than most other media, but during the discussion at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, I found myself questioning this assumption.  We had just finished watching The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and we were asking why the war in Vietnam had produced such a strong and sustained opposition while the war in Iraq has not generated a similar level of response.  After all, the activists of today have technological advantages that those opposing the Vietnam War did not, and these technologies should theoretically enable them to network and to share information far more easily and far more effectively.  Perhaps, I suggested to the group, the more active experience of using a computer actually dissuades people from becoming active in more practical ways, so that they respond to an issue by signing an online petition, or by writing a blog post, or by sending a mass email, or by contributing to some relief fund, but they never make the transition from internet activism to physical activism.  Their drive to engage in issues becomes satisfied through the monitor and never finds expression beyond it.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that real activism cannot be accomplished online.  I am merely suggesting that the internet often allows people to engage with issues in ways that provide only the illusion of activism and that it frequently functions to satisfy the need for active involvement in political issues without really addressing these issues beyond the level of the monitor.  Rather than enabling activism, the internet comes to replace it, limiting the ways in which people are willing to be politically active.

The answer to this problem is obviously not to abandon the internet as a tool for activism, because it is simply too effective a means for communicating and networking and organizing and raising awareness.  The answer may, however, involve reimagining how we use the internet and how we promote activism through it, so that we do not content ourselves with online petitions that nobody sees at the expense of actually feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, and protesting injustice.  I am not sure that I have any specific suggestions as to how this might be accomplished, but I would encourage you, the next time you are confronted by a cause in your online wanderings, to see what it is exactly that you are being asked to do.  Is it the kind of activism that stops at the monitor, or is it the kind that only begins there in order to go much further?

At this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, we watched Voices of Iraq, which is comprised mostly of footage shot by Iraqis using the 150 digital cameras provided to them by the producers of the film, and which describes itself as, “Filmed and directed by the people of Iraq”.  This description was one of the reasons that I chose to screen the film, because it seemed to imply that the film was providing a more truthful and accurate account of the situation in Iraq simply because the footage was actually made by Iraqis, ignoring the enormous role that the producers had in shaping the film, both through the process of editing 500 hours of raw footage into 80 minutes of finished film, and also through the choices of which people were to be given the cameras. Though I expected to see evidence of this editorial influence, I was startled to see just how much editorial intervention there really is in the film.  Not only are there the unavoidable and mostly invisible choices of what footage to include and exclude, but there are also frequent and highly visible elements that are very clearly not shot and directed by the people of Iraq.

There are the written titles for the sections of the film , for example, which are usually just dates, relatively innocuous, but that sometimes include strangely selective references to the political situation in Iraq.  One such title informs the audience that the month in question  saw the return of Iraqi sovereignty, though the highly ambiguous and contested nature of this sovereignty is never mentioned.  Another claims that there had been a rise in bombings and beheadings in that month, attributing these things exclusively to Al Queda, ignoring the considerable role that local Iraqi militia groups were having in the escalation of violence in Iraqi cities.  These sorts of titles, though not necessarily false, are certainly partial, and they are almost certainly not the kinds of titles that everyday Iraqis would use to describe the events that were taking place at that time.

There are also several sections of film that, while perhaps technically filmed by Iraqis, are certainly not filmed and directed by the common Iraqi people to whom the film claims to be permitting freedom of expression after more than two decades of silence.  There are several lengthy clips from terrorist propaganda videos, for example, and there are also several clips of the torture and killings conducted under Saddam’s regime.  There are no similar clips from Iraqi cameras that have captured abuses by the occupying American and British forces, though these videos are freely available all over the internet, so the editorial choice to insert certain kinds of found footage and not others becomes an increasingly unavoidable question as the film progresses.

Perhaps the oddest editorial intervention, however, is the inclusion of western newspaper headlines.  These headlines almost exclusively imply positions that are opposed to the American intervention in Iraq, and they are consistently followed by footage that contests their claims.  Not only are these interventions highly biased, never including examples of conservative headlines being similarly contested, and not only are they manipulative, making the footage take a position on a Western media debate about which the Iraqi filmmakers themselves would not even be aware, but they are also entirely opposed to the film’s self-description.  Western newspaper headlines are in no way written and directed by the people of Iraq.  Nor are they related to the ability of the Iraqi people to express themselves freely for the first time in decades.  They are imposed entirely by a Western editorial perspective.

These kinds of interventions are a problem because documentary film already creates an illusory sense of verisimilitude, of reality, of accuracy, of truthfulness, and Voices of Iraq, far from signaling this problem as good documentaries should, presents itself as being even more reliable and truthful than other documentaries because it is filmed by everyday Iraqi people, and yet its editorial influences constantly undermine the Iraqi voices that the film claims to represent.  The film is a problem, not because it is biased, as all documentaries are, but because it makes special claim to being  less biased, to being more accurately reflective of the situation in Iraq, to being a way for Iraqis to express themselves freely.  It is a problem because it attempts to conceal rather than to confront the impossibility of its own claims to facticity and truth.

This does not mean, however, that Voices of Iraq is entirely without merit, because it does include some lovely moments of intimacy with the Iraqi people.  There is an older man who describes how he coped with the bombing of his city by waiting up, night after night, playing the piano.  There is a young man who performs a solo dance in a small courtyard.  There is the mother who is interviewed by her daughter about the torture that she has endured.  These kinds of moments are where the film seems, even if only momentarily, to exceed its own intentions.  Such scenes may not be more true than the rest of the film, but they are more surprising, more intimate, more human, and they are where the film finds its worth.