The Holiday Spirit

This article is featured in the Montreal Gazette opinion section, click here

The holiday season is upon us. Outside the temperature drops below zero and snow gathers on the ground. In the streets people bundle up and tuck their hands in their pockets. Festive music plays and red and white lights shine bright.

The days inch closer to the holidays, and plans are being made and schedules are being set. I’m replying to Christmas party invites. And going shopping for gifts. And organizing who I’ll visit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

But wait a second, I’m Jewish.

Getting lost in the all-encompassing rush towards Christmas is understandable. The buzz in the office is all about the upcoming holiday and the closing of files before the break. Social calendars are dominated by Christmas-themed events and cocktails. And in the middle of all of this people of Jewish and other cultural and religious backgrounds must go on with their lives, minorities swimming alongside the wave of the majority. Of course they do their best to keep their own traditions, but it’s a nice time of the year and so you can’t help but get caught up in it all.

This year my family had Hanukkah dinner at Marathon Souvlaki on Decarie. I had the pork gyro.

This placing of our holiday on the backburner brings me back to all those protectionist warnings from my grandmother and just about every other old-schooler who would get you alone for more than a minute. “Who’s your new friend? Is she Jewish?” No Bubby, she most probably is not. Now fast-forward to today and I look around at my surroundings, my social circle, the culture I am a part of…and Jesus – oops I mean geez – maybe they were right. Maybe we are endangered.

These uneasy thoughts of cultural peril remind me of another declining culture in danger of being lost forever. I wonder who has more to fear, a Jew or a French-Canadian? It is possible to have more than one language, so I suppose that they are inherently more resistant to the threat of foreign influences. But religions are a bit tougher; it’s harder to carry two around.

And what if you are both Jewish and francophone? Does this mean that you’re twice as at risk of losing your identity? Oy vey, je capotte!

The way things are going, maybe the fears of Pauline Marois and Pierre Curzi and my Jewish grandmother are indeed warranted. Maybe we are all on the road to becoming amorphous Anglo-Christians wishing each other Merry Christmas instead of Joyeux Hanukkah.

The liberal quasi-atheist in me knows that this is not actually a big deal. That what really matters is spending time with friends and loved ones, no matter what title you place on the event. It’s the sentiment and the action that’s most important.

The reasonable part of me knows this to be true, but still I cannot help but feel concerned for the abstract pieces that may become lost and potentially gone forever. So who wins? The rational progressive who knows that we should evolve past man-made divisions of language and religion – or the person who feels the innate need to protect the few family traditions he has left?

Quebecois or Canadian? Jewish or Christian? Gretzky or Lemieux? Make up your mind, these are matters of utmost importance and you can’t have it all.

But wait a second. Why can’t we? Just as multi-racial families once seemed socially impossible yet are now a cultural norm – why can’t we have two languages, two cultures, heck even two religions? Why do I have to choose? Why does having one imply losing the other?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m way off. But then again maybe part of preserving what you are is embracing what you are being becoming. So that’s it, I’m doing it. This year I’m really going to get into the holiday spirit. I’m going to do it all. I’m gonna spin that dreidle and hum that carol and love thy neighbour. I’m gonna fry those latkes and carve that turkey and yes, maybe have another gyro. Happy Holidays.

The U.S. presidential election: why we care

English: Seal of the President of the United S...

The election for President of the United States of America is upon us. Across Canadian airwaves, around dinner tables, and throughout our newspapers, the U.S. election has received not only wide coverage but often in-depth analysis. This reoccurring phenomena begs a simple but elusive question – why do we care? Why, with so many pressing issues of our own, do we consistently turn so much of our attention to a political process that has next to nothing to do with us?

You could say that since the U.S. is our largest trading partner that the American election has significant economic consequences for Canada. You could say that since Canada relies on the United States as an ally on the international stage and in foreign policy decisions that the choice of their leader is important to us as a nation.

But that’s not really why we care. Whoever is president, Democrat or Republican, will not substantially change American economic or foreign policy towards Canada; and most major decisions must go through their Congress and thus are not directly in the hands of the President.

So what is the reason for our fascination with their electoral process? Why do our newspapers run opinion pieces on their candidates, why do our political discussions often focus on their issues rather than our own, and why did I get so excited that I threw a “debate party” at my place on the night of the first presidential debate?

The answer is both obvious and abstract. The U.S., despite all that they do wrong, all their divisiveness, and war-mongering, and extreme thinking – is still the center of the Western world. Their sheer size makes them a force we must pay attention to. Their hyper-capitalist mentality pushes everything they do, from Hollywood to their politics, across the globe and into our consciousness. We are caught in their wake, pulled in by their gravity.

As a major force in almost every field, from the arts to the environment, from the military to big business, the United States is the de facto global cultural leader. And this makes what they do relevant. Not because a new President will directly affect our safety or our pocket books, but because the directions that they take matter. Because of the U.S.’s central place in our general culture, the paths they follow will affect the ones available to us. They set the pace. They can stall progress on global warming, or push the world along to new paradigms. They can feed extremism’s fire, or elect an African-American as President and set a new cultural norm for us all.

And what they do is not only responsible for tangible changes in the directions we take, but is also symbolic of where we are as a society. They are that big fat lab experiment there for us all to see. That dysfunctional reality show broadcast on worldwide television. And this is why we care, why we cannot look away. Because they are a measuring stick. A mirror. Onto all that we wish we were and all that we do not want to be.

So I will stay up late on Nov. 6th and watch. Not only because of the specific consequences it may have for our society, but for that bigger view of where we are as a culture. What they do shows me what we are doing.

I won’t tell you who I’m rooting for, but let’s just say I hope that we are moving forward.

Going…going…gone? (TSN990 and what really matters)

How much is too much?

Does more always equal better?

Do we need to review our definition of value?

These are some of the questions that arise when I sit down long enough with the “big” questions. As you dig down beneath the surface of an issue, getting underneath the common arguments, reducing the points down to their purest form – you often end up with these sort of existential questions.

Problem is that when you’re dealing with an issue that is seemingly straightforward and black and white, these sorts of subjective and incomplete answers don’t seem to be enough. They just don’t cut it.

Or maybe, they’re just what we need.

Last week Bell Media (part of BCE), the largest telecommunications company in Canada, announced it was going to shut down the English-language sports radio station TSN990 and convert it to a French radio station. Here is the backstory. Just over 10 years ago the TEAM990 radio station was created and with the help of local sports broadcasting veterans Ted Blackman, Mitch Melnick, and others, the TEAM990 built a loyal audience and established itself as a reliable source of sports news and talk radio for the anglophone community of Montreal. In 2007, Bell Media bought the TEAM990 as part of a larger acquisition and eventually switched the station’s name to TSN990, with the station continuing to run pretty much as usual. This year, Bell Media made a deal to buy Astral Media for over 3 billion dollars, but because of CRTC laws stopping one company from owning too many stations in the same market, Bell Media is deciding to shut down TSN990 radio so that their purchase of Astral can go through.

Seems straightforward enough. A company wants to make a purchase and grow; there are legitimate laws stopping the deal from happening; so the company is closing one of their smaller divisions and getting the deal done.

What’s the problem?

Sure it’s unfortunate that TSN990/TEAM990 has to be closed down. Yes it’s terrible that all those years of hard work and community-building and benefit to our culture will be lost. But what can you do? It’s nobody’s fault directly, it’s just circumstance.

And this is where those existential questions run into those black and white situations.

How much is too much? Does more always equal better? Do we need to review our definition of value?

A billion dollar corporation gets that much bigger – but a business built of passion and hard work will be no more. An already abnormally large company buys out its competitor so that it can increase its revenue – but we lose an important part of the local community.

What is it that we hold as important? At what point do we put aside the excuses of circumstance and pay attention to the pervasive effects that unlimited corporate growth is having on our culture?

It is sometimes difficult to keep focused on such abstract moral subtleties when faced with the seemingly inarguable notion of increased profit being a good thing. But we must keep these questions constantly with us, because even if the theories and policies that we use are cold and efficient, we are not.

We need these abstract things. This culture that gets eaten away bit by bit is important to us. In today’s modern world the culture we grow up in becomes our heritage – and it should not be so easily sacrificed.

As time goes on, and as corporations intertwine themselves into more and more of our lives, we must find a delicate balance between growth and conservation, between the harsh advance of capital and the value of those harder-to-define things we need.

Deals like the Bell/Astral one may seem benign, may seem like the “natural” evolution of a market economy, but we must ask: is giving away another piece of ourselves really worth that minuscule bump in profit margin? Let’s be careful and protective of that abstract thing we call our culture, because if we are not, if we simply shrug our shoulders at supposedly black and white circumstances, that abstract and very fragile thing we call our heritage will slowly disappear.

Ohh Canada

Like most young Canadians I know little of our past.

Sure I remember the Plains of Abraham, and Sir John A. Macdonald, and some other random bits from grade 10 history. But to be honest, that’s about it. (and I had to Wikipedia those to refresh my memory).  I could give you a pretty decent summary of the major events of WWII, yet know next to nothing of the role our country played. I have spent countless hours watching and reading about America’s Revolutionary War but have no idea how our own nation was formed.

But I don’t feel bad; I know it’s not my fault. Tom Hanks has never played a quiet but strong Canadian soldier so I have never felt a burning need to learn much of our history. And there’s another reason that I don’t dwell too hard over my patriotic shortcomings – because the things that make me “Canadian” are not meant to be so simple to define.

When I travel the world I always show my passport with pride. Always utter the words “I’m Canadian” knowing it will be met with a pleasant reply. Have always waved our flag high during the Olympics. But why? Why identify myself positively with this country? Because I had a sense that this was a good place. That’s it. That’s all I ever needed to feel proud of where I came from. I did not need a glorious history of rockets red glare or bombs bursting in air. I felt this country had a good heart and that was enough for me.

In an increasingly globalized world, a traditional sense of national identity becomes less and less practical. Divisions based on name have only ever led to short-sightedness and conflict, so the fact that we Canadians do not cover ourselves wholly and blindly in the red and white maple leaf is a good thing. It keeps us open and ready to evolve with the rest of the world.

Yet as I turn on the television and read the paper and go about my life, I see things that trouble me, things that stir in me a desire to step up and defend this difficult-to-define nation of ours. Defend it not from traditional enemies attacking traditional notions of country – but from more elusive adversaries threatening that more subtle definition of our nation.

I see how Canada’s reputation on the world stage is being tarnished by an embarrassing devotion to fossil fuels and big money. How we are building more prisons than schools. How our political discourse has devolved into endless attack ads influenced by special interests. How our media is going the way of Fox News and our American neighbours, with increased partisanship trying divide our nation in two. And how we have allowed corporate advertising to take over public spaces without restraint, turning our cities into clones of suburban Texas strip malls.

Doesn’t this seem impossible? Not here. Not us. Never would we allow money to influence our national welfare. Never would we want the Canadian landscape to become an amorphous replica of a shopping mall. But it’s happening. And it’s happening because we are losing track of the very thing that made us who we are, the only thing that gave Canadians any sort of deep national identity. That this is a good place. That good things happen here. As the world eats at itself over petty disagreements and greed and distorted senses of value – we Canadians could always sit up here, supposedly cold and backwards and living in igloos, and chuckle at how ridiculous they all are. We could recognize the subtle difference that made us special.

So with Canada Day approaching, perhaps this is the one thing about being Canadian that we should remember. Not General Montcalm or the Battle of 1812 or powdered wigs; not making the most money or beating the other side at any cost – but that definition of ourselves as people with some common sense living in a good place we want to keep good. If we keep that in mind as we go forward and drop some of these bad new habits, things just might straighten themselves out.

 

Quebec student protests – take the detour and be thankful

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Tolerate the road closures and delays to your schedule. Endure the demonstrations and banging of pots. See past the muddled message and unfocused anger.

Because there is something very important behind these never-ending protests, something that is getting lost in all this right or wrong, us vs them.

The same thing happened during the Occupy protests. Hundreds of thousands in cities around the globe committing themselves to weeks out in the cold in order to say, out loud and to the world, that things are not Ok and this will not do. In light of the recent economic collapse caused by an obviously dysfunctional global system, we should have supported these camping vanguards wholeheartedly, should have given their fight for change our full backing.

But we did not. Instead the minority who welcomed their courage were drowned out by the majority who dismissed them as hippies in tents who should get a job.

Why?

Why so resistant to those giving themselves for a greater good? Why so quick to simplify and categorize?

If we were in the middle of a 20-year run of healthy economy, fair wages, and social justice – then dismissing protesters might be understandable. But clearly we are not. Things are messed up. Structurally, systematically messed up. So supporting those who hit the streets and demand something different should be a given.

Disagree with some of their arguments? Ok that’s cool. But given how glaringly wrong the situation is (growing income inequality; high taxes yet huge debt) and how outdated the solutions are (drilling and fracking in search of oil money; billions for new prisons while cutting education and social programs), the protesters refusal to backdown from “practical” solutions should inspire, not annoy.

The same old ways do not work. And finally somebody is saying so.

Ironically, many of the same people who automatically dislike the protests and who complain that the students are “spoiled” – are probably the same people who comment on the materialism of today’s youth, who shake their heads at kid’s walking around with headphones, texting their lives away. Kid’s today have got it all wrong. It’s not like it used to be.

So what is it that you want?

A detached and apathetic youth too materialistic to care about anything?  Or a passionate, if somewhat irrational, generation willing to take to the streets in defence of what they believe is a greater good?

Which would you prefer? What kind of culture do you want for your children?

We send our kids to school in ever-increasing numbers. We ask them to be well-rounded and learn of the world. Yet when they finally decide to speak up and use this education and broader perspective, why do we so quickly label and dismiss them?

Their youth and immaturity may indeed cause them to occasionally act out of line, but maybe these highly educated young adults can see something that you don’t. Maybe they have a fresh perspective. Maybe they resist seemingly rational solutions because they can see outside of this old bubble we are living in. Maybe, because of just that immaturity that makes them seem so irrational, they can still imagine a system that is different, that does not automatically return to the status quo.

Disagree with some of their opinions? Fine. Condemn some their more aggressive actions? Definitely.

But welcome their passion. Learn from their fresh perspective. And above all else, appreciate their willingness to got out and give a shit.

Because one day an issue may arise that you do care about, one that hits you very close to home and that you are powerless to fight…and when that day comes you will be very glad that you are a part of a culture that cares, that is willing to go out hit the streets.