Last week, I ended my month-long technology fast: no e-mail, no cellphone, no voice mail. Don't worry, I won't be smug. No extolling the virtues of face-to-face interaction over the vastly inferior, mediated one you're having right now. No sermons on the Zen-like rewards of the media cleanse (such as the ones we've become accustomed to hearing from those who have just had their colons irrigated).
Don't get me wrong: I'd love to make these self-satisfied assertions, but it wouldn't be right. First, I cheated. Second, it wasn't even my idea.
In June, on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, the person in front of me decided to take a nap. Since we were both enjoying the decadent luxuries of Air Canada economy, his reclining chair instantly crunched my laptop monitor, felling the machine for good. The next day, barely recovered from the loss, I was politely asked to return the borrowed cellphone I had been abusing for, oh, about seven months.
"This rice could save a million kids a year."
That was the arresting headline on the cover of last week's Time magazine. It referred to golden rice, a newly market-ready variety of genetically engineered grain that contains extra beta-carotene, a property that helps the body produce vitamin A. All over Asia, millions of malnourished children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death.
To get their supposed miracle cure off the ground, AstraZeneca, the company that owns marketing rights for golden rice, has offered to donate the grains to poor farmers in countries such as India, where, perhaps not coincidentally, genetically engineered crops have met fierce resistance.
It's possible that golden rice could improve the health of millions of poor children. The problem is that there is no way to separate that powerful emotional claim (and the limited science attached to it) from the overheated political context in which the promise is being made.
'The entire premise of the show is antithetical to the hunter-gatherer principles. It's a nightmare vision of primitive life! And the worst part of it is that now you hear people saying: 'You are so off the island.' " Like the rest of us, Richard B. Lee is talking about CBS's new hit "reality" series, Survivor. Unlike the rest of us, he actually knows of what he speaks.
Co-editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers and a world-class anthropologist specializing in African Bushmen, Dr. Lee is a forager expert. And the folks on Survivor—while they may gnaw on beetle larvae, hunt rats, run around with torches, go to a pseudo-primitive "tribal council" and paint their faces with mud—just don't cut it.
At his cramped office at the University of Toronto, Dr. Lee helps me sort out the differences between Survivor's tribes and the real thing. "Hunter-gatherers believe in sharing, inclusivity, and in making it all work together," Dr. Lee explains. In traditional Iroquois cultures, if food was scarce, whoever had food would share it equally among other tribe members.
How do you organize a riot?
That is an important question right now for John Clarke, the most visible member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. After OCAP's demonstration at Queen's Park turned into a pitched battle between protesters and police last week, Mr. Clarke was instantly singled out as a Machiavellian puppeteer, pulling the strings of a limp, witless rent-a-mob.
But what started as retro red-baiting quickly became more serious. Several unions have threatened to pull their funding from the anti-poverty group, and now Mr. Clarke himself may face police charges for allegedly inciting a riot.
Most commentators took it as a given that the demonstrators could never have decided all on their own to fight back when the police stormed the crowd with clubs and horses. After all, they came armed with swimming goggles and vinegar-soaked bandanas, so clearly they were ready for battle (never mind that they were meant to ward off the inevitable pepper spray). Someone must have orchestrated the violence, told them to pick up bricks, held Molotov cocktail-making workshops.
Just after noon tomorrow, a few hundred protesters, many of them homeless, will arrive on the steps of Queen's Park with a very simple request. They want to speak to the Ontario Legislature about the effects its policies are having on the poor.
If history has anything to teach us, Mike Harris will make a get-tough speech about how Ontario's voters have made their voices heard and he won't be bullied—right before he calls in the cops for a smashup. The question is: How will the rest of us react?
I ask this because, since the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, voters across Ontario have been searching their souls about the effects of Tory deregulation on real people and their daily lives. There has been widespread horror at the possibility that government cuts to the Ministry of the Environment, and downloading to municipalities, may have put the people of Walkerton at great risk.
"We have learned the lessons of Seattle and Washington," RCMP Constable Michele Paradis tells me on the cellphone from Windsor. She is in charge of media relations for the meeting of the Organization of American States that is coming to Windsor this weekend, along with a few thousand protesters who object to the OAS's plans to expand NAFTA into all of Central and South America.
"And what were those lessons?" I ask.
"I'm afraid I can't answer that," she says.
This is unfortunate, because there are any number of lessons that the Canadian police could have learned about how to treat protesters in the wake of November's demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and April's demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the absence of any elaboration from Constable Paradis, here are the key lessons the Mounties appear to have learned from their colleagues to the south.
Lesson #1: Strike pre-emptively.
Faced with the Million Moms in Washington and a mounting cry for tougher gun laws, the National Rifle Association has finally decided to pull out the really big guns. At its annual meeting in North Carolina last week, the organization announced its plans to open an NRA-theme restaurant and superstore right in the middle of Times Square: the NRA- Sports Blast and the NRA Grille.
They will fight mandatory trigger locks with greasy oversized hamburgers and brand-mobilia.
No longer will the awesome powers of lifestyle branding be left to the bleeding hearts over at the Rainforest Cafe, with their screeching parrots and tropical storms erupting on your potato skins. Soon, the NRA will sell tourists pieces of the gun-toting lifestyle, with shooting games to play and wild game to eat. No actual guns will be sold, just clothing and trinkets emblazoned with the NRA logo.
John Sugarmann, executive director of the U.S. Violence Policy Center, told reporters that this foray in "eater-tainment" shows that the NRA is "bizarrely out of sync" with the times.
Is it strange to quote NBC characters at policy meetings?
A few weeks ago, I participated in a serious roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto's venerable Massey College. The subject was whether a guaranteed annual income could be a viable campaign for the left. A group of political theorists, economists and activists debated the question, divided over whether the idea was too pie in the sky.
Which is when the TV show came up. "Well, to quote a recent episode of The West Wing," one of the policy experts said, "we need to raise the level of debate in this country."
The West Wing,which had its season finale last night, comes up a lot these days. It's especially popular on the left, where it serves as a kind of hallucinatory vision of how politics could be if Bill and Hillary Clinton weren't such sellouts to the business lobby.
Toronto ravers are trying to be so reasonable.
They have worked with City Council to draft the Protocol for the Operation of Safe Dance Events. The Toronto Dance Safety Committee has tried to make sure paramedic teams are at all the big parties.
And this week, at the inquiry into the death of 20-year-old Allan Ho, ravers are explaining that the primary cause of ecstasy-related death is dehydration. Therefore, they say, most of the risk from the drug can be eliminated at raves simply by making sure there is unlimited access to water and proper ventilation. What the ravers are only just beginning to understand is that none of this matters. The rave uproar, like all drug wars, isn't about safety, it's about politics. It's about the fact that a lot of parents don't understand their own kids: the way they dress, the music they listen to, the thing with the pacifier lollipops.
It was May Day when a leaked copy of the Retail Council of Canada's master plan to eliminate sweatshops came through my fax machine. London was rioting, two million people were protesting in Japan, and workers were smashing rice bowls in Hong Kong. As I read this feather-light document, designed, it proudly states, to assure "customers that the goods they buy are not produced under exploitative, inhumane or illegal working conditions," all I could do was laugh. Unlike tougher codes in Europe, and even the one just adopted by the University of Toronto, it said nothing about transparency, independent monitoring, or a living wage.
The retailers of Canada, it seems, are going to stop the sweatshop epidemic with nothing but bad blood and good intentions.
In June, 1998, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy was presented with a petition signed by 30,000 Canadians. It demanded that he convene a task force, much as the Clinton administration had done in the United States, to address the rise of sweatshop abuses in Canada and overseas.