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.