Wednesday, November 11, 2020

On Remembrance Day


After last week's Whole Foods poppy debacle, I found myself unable to participate in yet another installment of the Canadian culture war Kabuki theatre that is Remembrance Day.

We all know the drill – someone does something, anything connected to poppies, and Conservative politicians briefly remind everyone that virtue signalling and cancel culture are not the sole domain of the “Tumblr left”. 

Following this comes the ritual denunciations of Remembrance Day from the left, where we are all reminded that Canada is a colonial settler culture, and that Remembrance Day has been effectively co-opted by the right to gin up patriotic fervour for whatever imperial adventures we’ve decided the tag along with.

The thing is, the specific history of Remembrance Day concerns an unpayable debt that we owe to our ancestors – 106 years ago, this country began to send its young over to die for what was, in hindsight, perhaps the most absurd and pointless war in human history – nearly 60,000 Canadians died so that the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha could remain the most powerful royal house in Europe.  Thanks to this war, the Italians invented fascism, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered and many of the political formations that we find ourselves dealing with today find their genesis in the shadow of this insane expression of nihilism.

So this debt remains, and it seems to me that so much of why we undergo this culture war every year has to do with the fact that, as time has passed, Remembrance Day shifted away from reminding ourselves of this unpayable debt, and towards celebrating those who live, those for whom the debt can, in some ways, be repaid.

It is difficult to argue with this, as the bombers fly over our house today, that despite its seeming solemnity, Remembrance Day has become more of a celebration of military power and glory than an acknowledgement of the emptiness of the vast majority of armed conflicts in which Canadians have engaged.  I think we can now safely include Afghanistan in this calculus - the 200 odd people who died there really died for nothing, and no elegant flight formations, or poppy wearing, can change that.

Like many people on the left, I was outraged and horrified by the jingoistic celebration of “our troops” who we sent off on an errand of revenge after September 11, and that the invasion of Afghanistan was somehow a noble and just war (history has shown us that it wasn’t). 

That being said, there is something to be said for affirming this debt on Remembrance Day, this throwing away of life for nothing, in part because many of those who insist that one must wear a poppy are those who also believe that there’s no need to shut the country down right and pay everyone to stay home. 

That is, the current conditions we live under are akin to a time of war, and instead of the left being in denial of this reality, it is the right who seems to ever increasingly demand that we forget all those who have died for nothing over the past 6 months.  Perhaps if there is value in Remembrance Day, in this Remembrance Day, it’s that if one believes there is value to life, then today is a time to acknowledge that, to acknowledge that we do indeed live in a society, and perhaps expand the scope of Remembrance Day to include all those who have died for nothing, as a result of the neglect of our governments, and our society, and a reminder that we can do better than this.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Back to Blogging

I went off of Facebook for about six years.  There was a lot going on in my life, and after receiving some particularly depressing news, that desire to present some kind of avatar of myself felt impossible. 

Three years ago, I returned to Facebook.  My motivation for doing so was to in part to make it easier to be included on things with my wife, who had rejoined Facebook.  It also became clear to me that the reasons I went off Facebook were no longer really relevant, and my status as "that guy who doesn't use Facebook" no longer had the cachet it did in 2010. 

So I have been back for about 3 years, and frankly it kinda sucks.  I wound up using it as a quasi-blog, where I'd post links and complain about things, but the reality was that most of the posts that wound up with any feedback were posts where I shared a picture of our dog, or our son, or our son with a dog.

This isn't to say that those things are bad, it's just that Facebook as a social space is pretty unhealthy in some really strange ways, ways that I only ever understand when I go off Facebook, which I did again about a month ago.

My reasons this time were really different - I'm finishing my dissertation and given everything that is going on, Facebook just felt like an unhealthy distraction.

This is all to say that I'm going to try to blog more, in part because I like writing about things, and feel more inclined to do so.  But I tend to say this every few years, and nothing happens, so who knows? 

Monday, February 03, 2020

Plain Language is Bad

I found this old essay by chance today.  It's not bad, and reminds me that I was probably smarter a decade ago than I am now!  The Medicare fraud letter remains chilling, and I still believe that the plain language movement is part of a far larger cultural trend that has immiserated us to no end.  In any case, to the three of you who still read my blog, enjoy!

Government Communications and Entertainment:  a Brief Analysis of the Plain Language Movement

The shamelessness of the rhetorical question “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul.

Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry” Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 116.

There is a certain irony to the fact that George Orwell is both the author of Nineteen Eighty Four and the essay Politics and the English Language.  Nineteen Eighty Four has become a kind of cautionary tale about governments and their relationship to the truth, alerting people to the dangers of “newspeak” and the manufacture of truth by governments.  However, Politics and the English Language, where Orwell extols the virtues of clear and simple language, has itself become the foundational text for the Plain Language Movement.  His six rules for clear writing, such as avoid the passive voice, form the grammatical canon for the movement, which seeks to eradicate “gobbledygook” from legal and government communication, to ensure greater “readability” and “clarity”.  And what began as a movement opposed to government and legal standards of writing has now been fully embraced by those institutions.

Despite the broad aims of the movement, and the depth of its transformative power in shaping how governments communicate with their citizens, it is perhaps surprising how little sociological research has been done to examine the ramifications of the Plain Language Movement on public discourse.   Rather it has been assumed that plain language is good and necessary thing.  My own experience as a bureaucrat can testify to the near universal acceptance of plain language as a good thing.   This brief essay will attempt to suggest some avenues for more closely examining how plain language, far from engaging citizens, annuls that engagement by removing citizens from the democratic process, by focusing on ends to the detriment of means.

What is plain language?  The United State government's Plain Language ( website has several definitions[1]:
A word about "plain English." The phrase certainly shouldn't connote drab and dreary language. Actually, plain English is typically quite interesting to read. It's robust and direct—the opposite of gaudy, pretentious language. You achieve plain English when you use the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea. You can still choose interesting words. But you'll avoid fancy ones that have everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing.[2]
Bryan Garner, from Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, pp xiv

The next definition is from Professor Robert Eagleson, an Australian scholar of plain language:
Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.[3]

These examples illustrate the broad aims of the movement:  To eliminate ornament from language, and to make documents “readable”.  A writer is to find the “simplest” way of expressing an idea, and one is to avoid “fancy” words when “ordinary” words will do.   If one does this, the “audience” will understand their text (or specifically their message, a very important word indeed) “easily”.  It is important to note that complicated language “distracts”, presumably because it forces one to think for a moment about what one is hearing. The focus of both definitions is on economy as the hallmark of clarity.  However, what does clarity mean in practice for the Plain Language Movement?

The dramatic effect Plain Language has on government communications is best shown through an example.  One of the more chilling examples is the following, from US government's plain language website.  It is important to keep in mind that this transformation is being sold as an exemplar of clear, plain language:
Medicare Fraud Letter

The Medicare Beneficiary Services receives a lot of Medicare fraud correspondence every year. To reach their customers more effectively, they took an already short letter and made it even shorter and to the point.


Investigators at the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the providers medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.


We will take two steps to look at this matter: We will find out if it was an error or fraud.

We will let you know the result.[4]

It is important to note that this is a letter regarding an allegation of fraud.  The first letter goes to some length to explain the process to the correspondent, and the possible outcomes.  The second omits this information, and instead informs the correspondent that they will be told the outcome only when the government has completed its investigation.  An opportunity to describe a government's process becomes a statement of government action.  However, which letter is really “clearer”?

Instead of providing the reader an opportunity to form their own thoughts, the second letter, and indeed, many things written in “plain language” are designed to narrow the interpretive space of communication down to nothing.  Similar to Walter Benjamin’s views on newspaper writing, the government strains to interpret “what the people want”, so no other interpretation but the government’s interpretation is possible.  The second letter in the example explains, while the first letter describes.

This is where the idea of the government “message” is of supreme importance.  A politician, or a government, must remain “on message”, in other words, they must stick to the script which allows as little latitude as possible for interpretation.  However, through plain language, the idea of the message is sold as populist clarity.  The second letter, ominous as it sounds, also leaves a clear message – the government is acting.   The key message of the second letter is the sense that the government is “doing something”, not that the citizen has a role in that activity. 

Thinking of citizens as busy, simple people, who want facts and to see action, is reminiscent of Horkheimer and Adorno’s views on myth and its relationship to Enlightenment.  As they write, “Enlightenment’s mythic terror springs from a horror of myth.  It detects myth not only in semantically unclarified concepts and words…but in any human utterance which has no place in the functional context of self-preservation.”[5]  Plain language adherents see complex sentence constructions and technical vocabularies not as the outcome of complex government institutions, but as needless and wasteful, as a myth of government which plain language can eradicate, at least when communicating to citizens.   Instead, it forecloses the very possibility that governments are complex, restricting that complexity to those who work in government, who are themselves presumably not average.

Plain language in a government setting presumes people are unwilling to want to engage with their government in any more than a rudimentary, “practical” way.  It assumes not only that citizens want their information to be handed to them, without the sense that they, as citizens in a democracy, have a part to play in shaping that information.   It assumes, in effect, that they want to be entertained by their government.

It is telling that despite nearly 30 years of the plain language movement, as well as strong support from the very governments it had targeted, voter turnout is lower than ever and citizen disengagement in Canada has reached an all-time high.  The quote found at the head of this essay seems more apt than ever:  Citizens are less engaged perhaps because they understand that they are not really necessary, except on occasion for reasons of legitimacy.   Through plain language, the activity of democratic government has been replaced by politics as light entertainment, although I appreciate that this brief paper has only offered a glimpse of that.  

However, and perhaps this is the most perplexing question, who would have thought that this alienation would have been cultivated using the very grammatical rules Orwell developed as a caution against it?

[1] I am using the US government’s website for clarity.  Similar examples exist in Canada as well.
[5] Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.22

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Happy New Year!

That's pretty much all I've got.  Just trying to keep the door open. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Yes, we're doomed.

Although western Canadians (and much of my own family) are probably looking at last night's election as some kind of personal slight on Alberta, an apocalypse even, I think it's a lot more helpful to see what happened last night as a referendum on the extent to which Canadians believe in the reality and severity of global warming.

On this front, Alberta and Saskatchewan are going to be OK. 2/3 of Canadians voted for parties who either pay lip service to global warming while ignoring their own government's 5 year old emission reduction targets (the Conservatives) or who loudly proclaim that global warming is real, while spending more money on oil and gas development and pipelines than any federal government in history and tinker around the edges in ways that fall far short of our Paris accord targets. Moreover, if there were any serious worries by anyone that the Trans Mountain pipeline would be scrapped, those worries should have been put to rest. It will be built.

As for the other 1/3, those who might feel on a sliding scale that global warming is the central existential issue of our age, things are pretty bad. Although we were all fantasizing last night about some kind of minority where the NDP or Greens held the of balance of power, the size of the liberal minority, and the fear of another election means that although the carbon tax will stay, it will be far easier for the the Liberals to govern with the consent of the Conservatives more often than not, than to constantly be attempting to cobble together a more radically left wing political program, especially given that on most economic and foreign policy issues, the liberals and the conservatives are far closer to each other than they are to the nominally left wing parties. And far from the BQ being some kind of spoiler, I suspect it is Quebec that will be ignored when it comes to issues that they care about (like global warming).

This isn't to say that many Westerners (pace BC of course) won't remain completely unhinged from reality, from settled scientific discourse, or from the positions of their own ruling class (the oil and gas industry) but as someone with a lot of family there, I thought it important, after an acrimonious election, to point out that they won a lot more than they lost, even if the colour of the winners isn't the one that they liked best.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Are we doomed?

In this empty corner of the blogosphere, this ghost town, there's really not much going on.  I don't really read blogs anymore.  There are maybe three that I manage to still click on with some regularity, but like many people, once Google Reader was replaced by Facebook, my reading habits shifted and now instead of reading too many blogs, I find myself just constantly reacting negatively to all of the stupid Facebook posts I see.

So this is way of saying that, at this stage, I don't really expect anyone to read this either, but it's still my thing, a place to publicly muse about things, and so I will continue to indulge myself occasionally.  This is also a passive aggressive way of suggesting that if you'd like to comment, feel free

À propos, as many of my long time readers would know, I veer between talking about politics and talking about culture, with random things in between.  Given we're a few days away from possibly electing a Conservative government (again!), a government which explicitly rejects the existential issue of our age (as opposed to the Liberals, who acknowledge it while hoping they can continue to kick the can down the road) I have to say, it has been difficult to wrap up my dissertation on a 19th Century German poet and his relationship to medieval German culture.

I should say that it's not quite that I'm falling into the trap of "my dissertation is a waste of time, the humanities are a waste of time" kind of thinking that does trip one up often, rather it's more that I really feel as though I should be doing more than writing this dissertation, or blogging, or whatever it is I do on a day-to-day basis.

The earth is burning and I live in a country that will surely become a battleground in my lifetime, both in the figurative sense and the literal one, and most of my fellow citizens would prefer to either deny the reality of our situation, or kick the can down the road until the sliver of opportunity that we have now is gone. 

This is incredibly demoralizing - I mean, I really would just prefer to practise the piano or the organ and sing and conduct, none of which I do exceedingly well (or often enough), but it is generally difficult to do much when all one sees around them is the end of the world, and end that comes not as a bang but as a decay, and with it the end of the idea that there's a future that might be better for our children.

This prospect is made even more difficult because a) I have a child, a teenager in fact, and b) a lot of people with teenagers and little kids are totally fine in this country with electing someone whose policies will ensure that our children's lives will be worse than ours.  I mean, this has been going on for a long time (my entire adult life I'd say?  Or at least since the turn of the century?) but I don't know if I've ever really seen people be so brazen about it, about the fact that they'd trade their children's access to a healthy environment, and doom them to war because the world's resources are dwindling and Canada will be one of the last habitable places on earth, for a few hundred dollars in tax cuts so they can drive an SUV around for a few more years before the revolution comes.

In other words, when did nihilism officially become a telos in this country for oh, about 2/3 of Canadians?  I've always believed that Canadians are fundamentally pretty nihilistic as a people, with our soft sense of cultural and national identity, but this has always been offset by our newness as a country, and that the idea of Canada was still a largely unfinished political project, a project that could (and would) be improved on, a place where reconciliation could not only be acknowledged but actually happen, and where as as the second largest nation on earth, we'd eventually rise up to our unique role as stewards of this vast land, rather than fall back to our old ways as exploiters.  At this historical moment, a moment where we are so clearly running out of time, Canadians are not only failing each other in droves, we are failing our ancestors and our descendants.

This sense of the expanse of time opening before me and behind me is both inescapable and overwhelming.  Whenever I get into some dumb Facebook bunfight over some stupid post by someone whose brain has been curdled by the right-wing social media serotonin machine, the one thing I always want to say, but never do, is that I hope they remember what they wrote there, or how they voted. 

In 10 years, when things are so much worse because we decided our cars were more important than our children, and that a beer fridge in the basement was more valuable than clean drinking water for Attawapiskat, I really hope that, like anyone who gets ostracized because of something they said on social media, they will be held accountable, that they'll have to answer, even if only to their children, why they chose, at this crucial moment in human history, tax cuts over the well-being of future generations, or service cuts over ensuring that the most vulnerable of us can not only maintain an adequate standard of living, but have something resembling a flourishing human existence, an existence which we Canadians, could easily afford to provide for everyone, but don't. 

That I feel as though I am asking a lot of my fellow Canadians in wanting them to vote for idea of a better future over the (illusory) possibility of "cash" in your pocket, a literal bribe to ignore the devastation we are wreaking on this earth for another five years, is perhaps the most demoralizing thing of all. 

All that being said, and in an attempt to be true to this blog's mandate (as well as begin to develop some real social media synergy by posting identical content on a multitude of platforms, please enjoy this visualization of the first prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the piece we sent up into space to show the universe that intelligent life once lived here. Although I'm no longer convinced that listening to Bach might alter the course of history for the better, it certainly won't hurt .

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

I have little to say

However, I wanted to at least get more than 3 posts out this year.  Here's to hoping I will have something to say soon!

Actually, one thought.  50 years ago today the Apollo 11 launched.  Despite many great strides in terms of how we treat previously marginalized peoples, it is difficult to say that, 50 years after putting someone on the moon, humanity is closer to transcending our instincts and building a better future.  Instead we appear to be not only slipping into barbarism, but doing so at a moment when the earth might not be able to survive that barbarism.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

BWV 129 - Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday which, for many Christian churches, effectively ends the half year of seasonal changes in the liturgical calendar, leaving the churchgoer with a sense of stability and presumably, boredom, until the church year ends with the coming of Advent.

It also happens to the day I was meant to conduct the above Bach Cantata 20 years ago.  For reasons not worth going into here, this was delayed until the Fall of 1999, making it less a liturgical experience and more of a service with an orchestral and choral accompaniment. 

If you read far enough back, I had a strange plan to blog through all of the Karl Richter recordings of the Bach Cantatas in 2009, doing a blog post for each and every one he'd chosen in order.  I managed to get the first one out, but then missed the second week, and I guess decided I needed to wait another year to start again (How silly of me!).  

Well, it's ten years later, and now I'm blogging about a second cantata, which also has the virtue of being one I've conducted, nearly 20 years ago. 

What can I say about it?  It's a really beautiful chorale cantata, which means, the cantata is based around a Lutheran chorale.  This one is by Johann Olearius, called, uh, "Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott".  As is common with Bach's chorale cantatas, there are five movements: the first movement has the first verse of the chorale as a cantus firmus in the top voice while the everyone else sings and plays around it.  In this case, the first movement is quite triumphant and a lot of fun to sing (and conduct).

The middle movements are solo sections with a reduced number of players, much like the solo sections of the St. Matthew or St. John Passions, with the text usually a commentary on the themes of the chorale text.  The final movement is then a harmonization of the chorale melody with orchestral accompaniment.  All in all very satisfying, although the chorale, interestingly enough, doesn't really have anything to do with the Trinity, which is probably for the best.

It's odd feeling listening to it all these years later- firstly, I'm currently the organist at the church where I first conducted this cantata.  Secondly, my German is a lot better - I can actually understand what they're saying in German instead of having to rely on the translation.  Thirdly, I am a much better musician and conductor than I was then.

Our doing this piece back 1999 had a lot more to do with my ambition than anything.  But we did pull it off, and some of the people who sang there, who I see occasionally back in the church, still comment on the performance, which remains a highlight for me, even if the video recording of it is long lost, and the orchestra we hired to perform with us is long since disbanded.

Indeed, the music is still at the church, sorted carefully away, probably never to be used again, although I suppose, given I'm the organist right now, that's an overly pessimistic view on my own part!

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

The film's opening scene presents us with the telos of the world of Pokémon:  Tim Goodman (in case one wasn't sure of his role in the movie) is cajoled by a close friend, who we never see again, into attempting to catch a Pokémon.

Like the game that inspired it, the movie sets the stage by focusing on that quintessential Pokémon experience - subduing and entrapping a wild creature in order to force it to fight repeatedly for the honour and glory of the one who entrapped it.

However, unlike the game, which is refreshingly open about the power relations that exist between Pokémon and humans by simply forcing you, the child player, into capturing a Pokémon in the name of scientific discovery, the movie does away with this and opts for a saccharine "explanation" that the Pokémon must choose their trainer....effectively consenting to their enslavement.

Although this opening might lead one to believe that Pokémon Detective Pikachu will continue to mystify and obscure these power relations, (although one could admittedly read the Pokémon's willingness to enter the Pokéball as a metaphor for our own lack of willingness to overthrow capitalism) the central conflict of the movie itself not only exposes this unequal relationship for all to see, but actually doubles down on the slavery-as-friendship motif and turns the only true revolutionary figure in the film (Howard Clifford, played by Bill Nighy) into (Spoiler Alert!) its main villain.

Howard Clifford is the founder of Ryme City, where Pokémon live freely side-by-side with humans, and where Pokémon battles are illegal.  Ryme City is presented as a virtual paradise - a densely populated, technologically sophisticated mega-city that simultaneously flourishes with stunning biodiversity.  Outside of Ryme City, the old ways prevail, where wild Pokémon are caught and stored in balls until their trainer decides to let them out, so that they can fight another enslaved Pokémon until one or the other passes out from its injuries and people live in quaint but deeply boring villages and countrysides.

In contrast to the usual fetishization of the rural or natural, Ryme City is framed as an utopian space while the natural is positioned as dangerous.  Indeed, the violent car crash that frames the movie's narrative takes place over a rural bridge, and the dystopic lab where Pokémon are subjected to genetic experiments is in the remote countryside.  Over and over again, the movie shows us that untamed nature is violent and dangerous - indeed, Detective Pikachu himself suffers a nearly fatal injury in the midst of a forest upheaval which in and of itself is the result of a number of giant genetically-altered Pokémon.

Now you might be asking yourself - what is the central conflict of the film?  Well it turns out that Howard Clifford is a transhumanist, and not content with creating the paradise that it Ryme City, he intends to reshape humanity itself by fusing Pokémon with their companions, effectively turning every Pokémon into a synthesis of man and animal.

Our heroes, Tim Goodman and his friend, the plucky reporter Lucy (of course she's a reporter, what other profession better signifies impotent opposition than a member of the press?) uncover this plot and, unsurprisingly, manage to foil it, and separating Pokémon again from their trainers.

But what are the implications of this?  In the context of the film Ryme City was built on a lie, and its founder, Howard Clifford, has been exposed as a transhumanist fraud and thrown in jail.  How might the city react?  Well, presumably it will do so in a reactionary way, by returning to the good old ways, and re-enslaving Pokémon in order to use their pain as entertainment for the masses.

But wasn't Howard onto something?  Shouldn't his radical, Pokémon liberating ways actually be celebrated, and not condemned?  The movie's response to what made him bad was that he did not ask people's consent to reverse the power relationship, to enslave humanity by turning Pokémon into Pokéballs for humanity.  One could argue that, in the face of a global climate catastrophe, a humanity that lives on within the biodiversity of the natural world, rather than in opposition to it, is in many ways a vastly more elegant and hopeful path than the one presented in the film as the "happy ending", which is to basically affirm late capitalism, but this time with someone at the helm (Howard's son) who will be a "gooder" capitalist than his father.

And in a supreme ironic gesture, it is revealed that Detective Pikachu himself has been this very synthesis all along - the reason Detective Pikachu speaks is because MewTwo ( the most powerful Pokémon, who is incidentally the product of human tampering) fused Tim's father Harry into his Pikachu.  At the core of the dramatic action of the film is the very thing that the film itself explicitly repudiates at the level of the political.

All in all, it gives new meaning to "Gotta Catch 'Em All - Pokémon".