Friday, September 20, 2019

Beyond Meat missed the boat on environmentally-friendly packaging

A friend brought over a store-bought package of Beyond Meat burgers to share today - I don't buy them myself because I find other veggie burgers just as tasty, as well as cheaper and healthier - and I was somewhat disgusted by the amount of unnecessary packaging they came in.
Within the outside plastic film is a cardboard layer with all the branding and blurb. Then, another clear plastic film around a BLACK non-recyclable plastic carton. And, inside that, another layer of completely unnecessary wax paper, and then some actual food.
For a supposedly environmentally-friendly product, that an awful lot of non-environmentally-friendly packaging.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Deep breath: dressing up as a black character is not the same as minstrelsy

Here I go, risking my neck again. I know this is something I have written on several times now, but it keeps raising its hoary head and, at the risk of being branded racist, I do believe it is important and something that the political correctness movement, so necessary in so many other respects, may have got wrong, or at least got out of perspective.
Justin Trudeau is the latest to be pilloried for wearing what the press is calling "blackface", or sometimes "brownface", when someone managed to unearth a photo of him from eighteen years ago at a school pageant dressed up as a black character from Arabian Nights, complete with turban and black make-up. The press is having a field day, and opposition politicians are predictably playing it up for all they are worth. Trudeau himself immediately abased himself and apologized profusely for this youthful indiscretion (the photo dates from more than a decade before he even thought of going into politics), because that's just what you have to do for damage limitation in matters of this kind. This comes out just a month before a tight general election. Coincidence? I think not - someone with a grudge has been saving this up for an opportune moment.
Anyway, political considerations aside, this issue of blackface is a perennial one, and in recent years it is the kiss of death for any politician or personality fingered by it (and there have been several, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey being just two in recent months). You may say, and quite rightly too: blackface is a racist holdover from the minstrelsy shows of yesteryear in which white people dressed like caricatures of black people for purposes of entertainment, demeaning, shaming and dehumanizing them in the process.
This is what blackface looks like
Yes, I am familiar with minstrelsy, bizarre concept though it is. How could I not be? Every single article on the subject runs over the long, sordid history of the tradition, in more or less detail. My father used to love the Black and White Minstrel Show in the UK back in the 1960s, because he loved the music and the dancing. I'm pretty sure he never even thought about the fact that these were white people dressed up as black people, and neither did I, truth be told, even though I hated that "old people music" with a vengeance. Frankly, I'm not sure that the minstrel shows I saw ever actually "dehumanized" black people - I'm not entirely sure what that means in this context - but they sure stereotyped and caricatured them, in much the same way as other shows caricatured other individuals and segments of society. Hell, stereotypes and caricatures are what much of comedy is based on, even though I'm more of a subtle wordplay kind of guy myself. Anyway, I digress.
The main problem I have is that there is a difference between somebody dressing up as a stereotyped, even exaggerated, black person to deliberately portray them as a figure of fun, and somebody dressing up as a specific individual from fiction or from real life, often in a spirit of emulation or even adulation. Blackface is a very specific traditional performance genre, which does indeed have racist roots, but which has all but been eradicated today. Using make-up, including black and brown make-up, for other purposes is not the same thing at all. For example, someone dressed as Black Panther for Comicon, someone dressed as Muhammed Ali or Usain Bolt (or Dianna Ross or Rihanna) for a fancy dress ball, or a kid dressed as an indigenous princess (yes, I know, there's no such thing) or Snoop Dogg for Halloween. Or, for that matter, Justin Trudeau dressed as a character from Arabian Nights for a school fundraiser. Call it freedom of expression, call it what you like: what it is not is hate speech (or "hate dressing" if that is even a thing).
Indeed, this is not blackface: this is someone dressed up as someone they're not. People do it all the time, and they are usually not trying to demean or dehumanize anyone. A big part of the problem, I have realized, is the use of the word "blackface" out of context. As soon as the word is used, any conversation or debate is closed down, and battle lines are drawn. We are suddenly talking about a taboo subject. Look what happened to Megyn Kelly when she tried to talk about the subject last Halloween.
I am also aware of, and generally sympathetic to, the difference between intent and effect. Maybe it shouldn't be the case and maybe it should, but the effect on a viewer, their perception of what is occurring, always trumps any intent, well-meaning or otherwise, on the part of the perpetrator. So, then the question arises as to whether these perceptions have not become skewed over time by the political narrative around them.
Now, I am not black, and so am not in any position to make definitive pronouncements on this. But just take a more or less random example from today's paper, a Canadian woman of Malaysian background recounts her first experience of Canadian racism: a couple of white girls were discussing their summer and their tans, and one asked the other, "Am I as dark as her yet?", referring to the Malaysian woman. Racist? I would argue probably not - just a couple of silly girls overly concerned their looks, aspiring to have as "good" a skin colour as the unknown woman. There was no intent to demean or "dehumanize" (yes, I know, intent-effect!). But the Malaysian-Canadian woman clearly sees it as racist (or at least does so now - she doesn't record her reactions at the time). Should she? Is this politicization for the sake of it? Is it a heartfelt personal reaction, or an attitude influenced by the curent political Zeitgeist? I'm not saying I know better than she; I'm just putting an unconfortable question out there.
I don't know how many people of colour are offended by a young Trudeau dressing as a black Arabian Nights character for the entertainment of children. I would be interested to know, but I have not been able to find much analysis on the subject. Interestingly, in some interviews of random Canadians recorded by the BBC, most of the people of colour interviewed say that they don't really care about it, that's it's essentially a non-issue, and the only instance of outright outrage came from a middle class white woman. The reaction in Trudeau's home riding of Papineau seems to be equally sanguine, at least anecdotally, among both black and white respondents, with many expressing the view, contrary to what many press articles are asserting, that cultural sensitivities have indeed evolved over the last 18 years. Georges Laraque, a black ex-NHL player who went to the same school as Trudeau, says he doesn't remember anyone dressing in blackface, even in those days, but would have just laughed along if he had, adding that, in his view, blackface is only racist when it is used to amplify or satirize African-American stereotypes. This sounds like a reasonable line to me, but is it representative of black attitudes (outside of the highly-politicized or media-orientated classes)? I don't know.
If Trudeau had dressed as a woman, would women be offended? If he had dressed as a slightly whiter character from Arabian Nights, would slightly whiter people be offended? Is whiteface (yes, there is such a thing) racist? I don't really know, and we are not likely to find out in the current climate of taboo around the whole subject. But can we at the very least agree to separate out the idea of minstrelsy blackface from the more innocent practice of dressing up?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Kaillie Humphries' exercise in chutzpah and hubris

Love her or loathe her, Kaillie Humphries is a larger-than-life character and a genuine Canadian superstar within her rather esoteric winter sport of bobsleigh. She won back-to-back Olympic medals in 2010 and 2014 with brakewoman Heather Moyse (who hardly ever gets a mention, not having  Humphries' star-power and "dominant personality", as I have seen it described) and a bronze in 2018 with another brakewoman, Phylicia George, hanging on her coattails.
She has probably won many other competitions too, over the years, but no-one would know about that unless they were aficionados of this rather obscure sport. Because, as regards bobsleigh, the Olympics is it, the Olympics is (literally) the gold standard. No-one really cares what a bobsleigher does outside of the two or three weeks of the Winter Olympics, once every four years.
And that's important because, as Ms. Humphries continues her high-profile fight against Bobsleigh Canada, one has to be aware that it is Canada (and Bobsleigh Canada in particular) that has made her what she is today. Bobsleigh is not a sport you can practice in your backyard: Ms. Humphries has undenyably benefitted hugely from Canada's bobsleigh infrastructure and coaching. And now she wants to take all that she has become and put it in the services of ... the United States, no less. The opposition, the rivals.
Ms. Humphries recently married an American bobsleigher, hence, presumably, her desire to compete for America and not, say, Switzerland. She would still have to get her US citizenship fast-tracked somehow, and she would still have to qualify for the US team, but she seems confident that that can be achieved (and she is nothing if not confident, perhaps over-confident - she once tried out for the Canadian men's team, although she didn't actually do very well). Bobsleigh Canada says they are happy to continue with her as a Canadian competitor, despite her apparent desire to sever all links, but the atmosphere must now be decidedly frosty.
Ms. Humphries even took Bobsleigh Canada to he courts over all this - the "real" courts, that is, not the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada; that is her style - although the courts have just ruled against her. And she is still continuing with an emotional and mental harassment case against her Canadian coach, which is obviously something that needs to be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. But it is pretty clear that this is all about her. She wants to win at any price - the national pride that motivates so many other Olympians just doesn't come into it. And she might find that, in a sport like bobsleigh in particular, she needs more than chutzpah and a penchant for self-aggrandisement. As Cathal Kelly points out in the Globe and Mail, no-one likes a turncoat.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Purdue is not the only culprit in the opioid crisis

Purdue Pharma is applying for Section 11 bankruptcy after being hit with billions of dollars in legal claims for its role in the opioid crisis in North America.
Most people are probably cheering in a fit of schadenfreude, as Purdue is most definitely guilty of excessive and forceful marketing of its OxyContin pain-killer, even in the face of clear evidence of misuse and addiction and a burgeoning underground secondary market. It is estimated that as many as 350,000 deaths may be laid at the drug's door over the last few decades.
But Purdue is not the only culprit here, and it should not be carrying the bag for other players who bear at least some responsibility for the crisis. And I am clearly not the only person who thinks so (for example, this Guardian article dates back to March of this year).
For one thing, OxyContin is not the only narcotic pain-killer out there, and other Big Pharma companies are also guilty of using their money and lobbying power to influence regulators, politicians and the medical establishment in general in their favour. Furthermore, it was the Food and Drug Administration that opened the door wide for the prescription of powerful opioids in the first place, and which kept it open despite the warnings and recommendations almost ten years ago of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (one of the only institutions to come out of all this with any credit at all). Hospital corporations and health insurers readily bought into it, setting their own profits over their moral and legal obligations. Drug distributors, the mega corporations behind the scenes, deliberately turned a blind eye.
Other commentators (like this doctor and regulatory advisor) have identified a whole host of other institutions, including the American Pain Society, the Veteran's Health Association, the Joint Commission, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and well-meaning researchers like Press Gainey. There seems to be no end to the potential villains in this crime.
But, hell, the doctors themselves surely bear a huge part of the responsibility (as the aforementioned doctor candidly admits), and they are not even being talked about right now. MDs are on the front-line and can see the effects of their over-prescriptions at first hand. They are often portrayed as the unwitting pawns of the drug companies, unable to resist the blandishments and cajoling (and the downright bribery) of the pharmaceutical companies. But they are not merely passive instruments; they write out the prescriptions, and they can choose not to.
And, last but maybe not least, the patients themselves cannot abdicate ALL responsibility. They are the last line of defence when it comes to their own health and, while most people tend to defer to health professionals on the assumption that doctor knows best, they are quite capable of reading the warnings in the press and seeing which way the wind is blowing. A doctor cannot force a patient to take a potentially addictive narcotic, and when offered "heroin in a pill", as OxyContin has been called, patients could just say no. There are alternative treatments out there, and it is ultimately upto the patient to decide whether the cure might not be worse than the illness.

Who knew? Some chickens are black all the way though

Here's a bit of an oddity. Some breeds of chicken are hyperpigmented, due to a condition known scientifically as fibromelanosis.
What this means is that the Ayam Cemani chicken of Indonesia is a deep bluish-black colour. But not just the plumage is black, so is the skin, beak, comb, tongue, and toes. Even its bones are black, and its meat is also black-tinged. A few other breeds also exhibit this kind of dermal hyperpigmentation, including the Silkie chicken of China, the Black Hmong chicken of Vietnam, and the Svarthöna chicken of Sweden, although not quite to the extent of the cemani.
Apparently, this rare genetic mutation can be traced back to just one individual bird, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The strange colouration has not done these birds much harm though. They enjoy normal chicken lives and health, and have even become popular with show breeders and, predictably, with gourmands, who maintain that the off-color meat and bones have a distinctive and rich flavour.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Why Boris Johnson wants an election and Jeremy Corbyn doesn't

These days, I only keep half an eye on the embarrassing Brexit hornet's nest that continues to unfold in Britain under Boris Johnson. I have long given up on expecting anything sensible to happen there, and I don't have any expectations of a miraculous resolution to the seemingly insoluble snafu they have dug themselves into.
But, among all the Byzantine and ever-changing complications of the issue, I have been trying to get my head around one particular issue: why doesn't Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn want a general election? After all, he was constantly calling for just such an election not that long ago. What has changed? Why wouldn't any opposition party be salivating at the prospect of an election that might bring them to power? Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a two-thirds majority is needed to change the election date from the fixed 5 year date, and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and assorted dissident Tories could probably swing that if they wanted.
But why would Boris Johnson want to risk his current leadership position and call a general election? Isn't that counterintuitive? As far as I can tell, it's just a last-ditch desperate attempt to surround himself with enough Conservative MPs who are in favour of a no-deal come-what-may Brexit, to end the present stalemate on the issue. Currently, his party no longer has a majority in Parliament, and several Tory MPs have come out in favor of extending the deadline to negotiate a deal with the EU, something Johnson says he will never do. He seems confident that he could win a majority again in a general election,although in reality that is far from assured.
As for why Labour is opposing an early election,well, the first thing to unpack is that not all Labour politicians agree. Several Labour MPs and some of the large, powerful Labour-affiliated unions are in fact in favour of an election as soon as possible. But Corbyn and probably a majority of Labour members are currently opposing such a call.
The bottom line seems to be that Labour DOES want a general election but not at the expense of a no-deal Brexit. Alm the agonizing on the question within the opposition camps revolves around the timing of the election, and whether or not it should be delayed until after the 31st October Brexit deadline, so that Prime Minster Boris Johnson cannot repeal the recently passed legislation banning a no-deal Brexit, especially given that no-one trusts Johnson to do what he says he will do.
Johnson himself suggested a 15th October election, but in the latest vote, on 9th September, Labour abstained en masse rather than allow an early election, effectively kicking the can a bit further down the road. Johnson then took the contentious step of proroguing Parliament until 14th October, just two weeks before the final EU deadline, so there is now no possibility of an election before November.
This is all dangerous brinkmanship within a whole campaign of brinkmanship on both sides. I'm not sure you can say that the two sides are just "playing politics" - heartfelt opposing beliefs about Brexit are driving everything at the moment - but it sure looks that way sometimes.

Invoke the 25th Amendment! Wait, what IS the 25th Amendment?

There is increasing talk about the USA using the 25th Amendment to push out an increasingly unstable Donald Trump from the presidency. Talk about an impeachment has gone onto the back-burner recently for various reasons, but two Republicans who are looking to stand against Trump in the Republican primaries later this year (former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld and former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh) have openly mentioned the possibility.
But, for those of us who live outside of the US, what IS the 25th Amendment, and why is it being considered in the case of Trump, and what are the odds that it might ever actually be invoked?
The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution is a relatively addition, dating from 1965, in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It deals with the replacement of a president by the vice president in a case where the president is physically or mentally incapable of carrying out his duties as president. Generally this is done at the request of the president, as when Gerald Ford took over the presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation.
But Section 4 of the Amendment specifically allows for a president to be replaced by the vice president even against the president's wishes where the vice president and a majority of the sitting Cabinet secretaries (which, in the current 15 secretary setup, means 8 secretaries) deem the president to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office". If the president disputes this (and, oh, just imagine Trump's reaction!) a two-thirds majority vote of Congress can maintain the decision, even against the President's wishes. Section 4 has never been enacted, ever.
Given the sycophantic current vice president, Mike Pence, and the current make-up of the Cabinet, such an invocation is very, very unlikely to come about (and would anyone really want Mike Pence as president anyway?) So, the recent calls for the 25th Amendment to be applied to Mr. Trump are not really serious policy initiatives, but electioneering sound-bites for his opponents, safe in the knowledge that they are very unlikely ever to have to follow through. They are just a cheap way of highlighting just how unstable and potentially  dangerous a second Trump term could be, for America and the world.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Can a hairstyle be considered cultural appropriation?

Oh, here we go again. And here I go again risking my online skin by questioning the political correctness Zeitgeist. But it has to be done, because this stuff is just getting out of hand.
Model and YouTube vlogger Nikita Dragun has offended a whole lot of black people by sporting braided hair. Now, I've never even heard of the woman, but apparently she's famous among a certain set, and I have to say that the platinum blonde braids do look very nice. But it seems that, because some black people like to wear similar braids, they are claiming some kind of copyright over them, and Ms. Dragun is being accused of "cultural appropriation", and even of being "anti-black" in some way.
She hastily sent out an Instagram post to her 5 million followers (5 million!) saying that she wore the braids "to show my love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life", and also that "being part Native American, we also have braids and stuff like that" - both of which sound a bit tenuous and desperate to me - and it seems like some people were mollified by these explanations, but some were even more outraged (and some, let it be said, were not worried by it in the first place).
Now, I have a lot of sympathy with victims of bona fide racial prejudice, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. But (as it also demonstrates) I have very little patience with this kind of holier-than-thou attitude, and I often (not always) disagree with specific allegations of cultural appropriation, which is a concept that I understand but find to be often (not always) too broadly or wantonly applied. This is just such a case in point, in my view. Just because some subset (a small minority at that) of black people like to wear their hair in braids, dreadlocks, cornrows, you-name-it, doesn't mean that they have a monopoly on such a fashion statement. Are black Americans culturally appropriating the hairstyles of West Africans? Or Australian Aborigines? Are black people who straighten their hair (and there are many, not to mention those who artificially whiten their skins) culturally appropriating white styles? Is paying homage to a certain style, or emulating it in a spirit of reverence or tribute, the same as cultural appropriation, which surely requires an element of flippancy, disrespect or scorn. Can hair even be considered a part of culture? The more you think about it the less justifiable it is.
Rant over. If anyone read this damn blog, I'd be waiting for the tsunami of abuse right now, because this stuff gets so personal and stormy. I just genuinely don't get the whole cultural appropriation thing. We live in a postmodern world where everybody appropriates everybody else. Why is that such an issue, and why is it always assumed to be antagonistic and injurious?