Posts Tagged ‘ critical theory ’

Rob Ford is not an Addict; Rob Ford is a Monster

Insightfully missing the point in a recent article titled “Rob Ford: a dubious grasp on recovery fundamentals,” Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star examined our illustrious mayor’s behaviour and statements on his return from rehab, and found them to be inconsistent with the narrative of an addict in recovery.

Says Coyle: “About his experience in rehab, the mayor recited only bromides and generics. This was unusual. Virtually all rehab grads have moments of clarity, small epiphanies, those times when they get it. These are usually heart-scalding. And hardly a rehab grad speech is made without a man or woman telling of an instance deeply meaningful to them. Ford has had nothing of the kind to say. Likewise, he had almost nothing specific to say about the behavioural changes that will be necessary to live sober — the mundane nuts and bolts in which rehabs specialize. … The most screaming silence of all, of course, was his failure to specifically mention his children or wife — who, if they are like most every other family to have walked this path, will have suffered most from his addiction. Most every parent who goes into rehab has a searing moment when they realize just how much pain they’ve caused loved ones. It causes our greatest grief. It inspires our greatest determination to get well and get it right. Most every parent coming out of rehab dedicates themselves, above all, to being better fathers or mothers.”

Long story short, Rob Ford’s recovering addict performance was unconvincing. Coyle seems to think that Ford is addicted, but not recovered. I suspect, however, that it goes deeper than that: Rob Ford, though a problem drinker, was never truly addicted in the first place. The defining feature of addiction is akrasia: using against one’s better judgement. Wanting to stop, but being unable to stop. It is not the same as merely having a drug/alcohol problem, as drugs and alcohol can cause serious problems even in the absence of an addiction, and, indeed, one can be addicted without having suffered any dramatic harm (and most users of every popular drug are not addicted and will never be seriously harmed by their use). Rob Ford was not constantly drunk, but was prone to binges, and in his excess frequently got himself into trouble. The claim that he has an addiction, as far as I can tell, was never substantiated, but was taken for granted since the news first came out about the crack video. There was, at that time, some debate about whether the allegations about using crack were correct. There was, however, no debate about what crack use signifies.

Did someone said crackIn the white middle/upper class imagination, crack has long provided a convenient transfer point by which the responsibility for racial inequities could be shifted from white society (racism) to black people themselves, via the proxy of a drug. Crack thus inherited the legacies of slavery and systematic discrimination. Faithful to these roots, its criminal prosecution has brought terrible violence against already severely marginalised people. In the United States, prior to the Obama administration, crack cocaine was punishable 100 times as severely as powdered cocaine (under Obama, that ratio was lessened to 18 to 1), even though crack and powder cocaine are literally the same drug, different only in means of ingestion (and therefore in rate of absorption). Powdered cocaine, however, is associated with rich whites, and crack cocaine is associated with poor blacks. As those incarcerated in the United States are required to work, often under threat of increased sentences or even solitary confinement, disproportionate prosecution of the War on Drugs against young black males has ensured a steady supply of slave labour for American manufacturing. To justify these practices, crack has been repeatedly vilified, its harms conflated with those of endemic poverty and malnutrition. Discrimination is covered up by medicalisation, turning a moral problem into personal problem, poverty into criminality and then into disease. Rob Ford, however, is not black, nor is his family poor. To the gentrifiers who dominate this city, for a white mayor to be a crack user was incomprehensible — it didn’t match the script for either mayors or crack users. Much of the ensuing scandal revolved around race, with Ford casting himself as white saviour while simultaneously uttering bigoted comments, repeatedly accused of racism but also of having inappropriately appeared in photographs with people whose appearance marks them as outsiders to be avoided. He got high with people from whom he was supposed to be hiding, and it blew everyone’s minds.

Should we have been so surprised? While “a whopping 85 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were black … the majority of users of the drug were white.” (Hart, 2014) Most of what most of us think we know about crack is completely untrue. For example, there never was a crack baby epidemic. It’s not that crack is totally safe; there can be significant health effects from regular crack smoking, but they’ve been vastly overstated in drug war propaganda, and so the public has a very distorted image of its effects and users. One of the lies we’ve been told is that crack is instantaneously addictive: try it once and you’ll become mindless, incapable of making rational choices, forever consumed by the hunger for crack. To see if this were actually the case, psychologist Carl Hart performed an experiment in which crack users were given the choice of crack now, or a monetary reward some hours later. If the mindless-crackhead model were accurate, no amount of money would have been enough to outweigh the option of getting high right now — but, in the experiment, $20 was a sufficient reward for every single crack user to delay gratification. If only $5 was offered, sometimes they’d choose the crack, provided there was enough of it. This makes it clear that crack users can rationally consider their options and refrain from using if there’s a better option available. Moreover, most people who use crack do not become addicted to it, and even if they end up struggling with addiction, they can still weigh options and choose appropriately. Addiction is a conflict of values, where the good parts about getting high, though outweighed by the bad parts, are still serving an important function which cannot be so easily released, and this conflict can expand and take over entire lives, or even entire communities. Rob Ford, however, is not even addicted — or, at least, there’s no evidence that he is. We simply found out that he’s used crack and immediately assumed he must be addicted, because we’ve been lied to for decades in the hopes that the slavery of black people might thrive uncontested.

I don't always smoke crack

Rob Ford’s behaviour has been problematic, to say the least. His comments and actions have been homophobic, racist, abusive and reckless, and his drinking has surely played a central role in that. There is much about him many of us we would like very much to sweep under the rug, and the narrative of addiction provides a convenient way of doing exactly that. By calling him an “addict,” we strip his actions of authenticity. If he was addicted, that means he was going against his own will, and so the struggling human can be separated from its body’s actions. This also functions collectively: by marking certain behaviours as “those of an addict,” we can place them outside of our collective self-concept (we’re not like that; he’s just sick). The realities that a great many people actually want to have an ignorant bigot for mayor, and that someone with power might actually like to get high (and not be conflicted and contrite about it), are harder to swallow than the old story that sometimes people go down bad paths in their lives and do awful things in spite of themselves. “Addiction” is, among other things, a script we can assume he’s following if we want to ignore what he actually is. And what is he?

A monster is a creature which exists across categories, which cannot be accounted for under the dominant system of thought, and which therefore threatens destabilisation, provoking a reaction of fear and hatred. It comes from the Latin verb for “to remind”: monsters demonstrate. In colloquial English, it also means an unredeemable villain, one guilty of cruelty and identified with the grotesque. A monster is the unthinkable and inescapable. For an addict to have made errors only to find a path to recovery and redemption would put everything in its proper place and reaffirm the social order — the gentrification of Rob Ford, defusing his potency. The definitional requirement of addiction, however, is simply absent: political manoeuvring aside, there was never any indication that Rob Ford actually wanted to stop but found himself unable to; I posit that he never wanted to stop at all: he simply likes getting drunk and high. Thus, he is a monster, haphazardly crossing the lines of race and class, revelling unreflexively in the violation of every Torontonian taboo.


Does he seem like he’s recovering? To quote again from Jim Coyle, “There was nothing of the vitality and enthusiasm that most rehab grads have on release, the gratitude for a new lease on life, the eagerness to get on with showcasing the new and improved us. He seemed like someone who had just lost his best friend. … he seemed still to be grieving.” We must now consider the possibility that Rob Ford was able to sustain his exuberance and civic engagement in the face of constant and vicious attacks not in spite of but because of his substance use. What seemed like a politically expedient move — admitting to a non-existent addiction so as to follow a simple narrative and regain public trust — has now failed. His recovery was a lie, and he has been made weaker by the effort. It may be that without the stimulating secret to his powers he will simply fade away. More likely, however, is that we have not yet born witness to the great and terrible fruition of his monstrosity, and he will soon return to shock us all once more. I can only hope that he will not do so in a way that is materially damaging to this fair city, and that he will not regain power in the upcoming election. Vote Sketchy.

If the purpose of a monster is to show unrealised possibilities for greater understanding hidden in the cracks between categories, what promises lie hidden within the ample flesh of our notorious mayor? The (well founded) accusations of racism on his part, combined with condemnation expressed towards him for associating with poor black people, perhaps, hold the key. By indulging wilfully in what we wrongly assumed was reserved for the underclass, he has crossed a boundary, forcibly inserting black poverty and drug use into the branding of a “post racial” city in the throes of gentrification. Here, as elsewhere, race continues to inform practices of marginalisation.  We have supported policies of genocide against First Nations, and we have allowed the descendants of slavery to be enslaved once again under completely false pretences, blamed for the problems endemic in their communities, problems which stem from structural forces which meanwhile buoy the status of middle and upper class white Americans and Canadians such as Rob Ford. Perhaps, instead of constantly falling over ourselves to express disingenuous sympathy for Rob Ford’s “condition,” we should work to change the systemic factors responsible for establishing the narrative by which we have misjudged his conduct. Addressing endemic poverty among marginalised populations is a daunting problem and will not be simple, nor will it happen without resistance, yet it is necessary. Allow me therefore to close with two concrete suggestions for how to move forward:

1) Abolish the prison system, and pay reparations to those who’ve borne its abuses.

2) Design and implement a mincome-type system to eliminate poverty.


“Oppos[e na/i]tional Agency” rap essay about salmon fisheries + annotations

After performing my piece, Oppos[e na/i]itional Agency at a talent/untalent show this past Thursday, I got many requests to run through it slowly and explain it for people. I didn’t get a chance to do so with everyone who wanted me to, so, here are some hastily written annotations.

Oppos[e na/i]itional Agency
this title was chosen to be difficult to Google; this work is in fact part of three essays written in different modalities, another being a painting which exists semi-permanently in exactly one location, another being Inebriation and Authenticity which can be downloaded anywhere, and this, which I can reproduce in person on demand. It is an oral presentation, not a written one, and so this is not an “official” version of it. The title contains either “oppositional” or “oppose national,” placing agency at either the locus of engagement or at the level of an organisational structure to be opposed. My political leanings tend to the anti-nationalistic; there’s a subtle dig here against the language of “First Nations,” though it’s the traditional state (Canadian and otherwise) which receives the most ire.

When did we agree, democratically, how to divide coercive authority? The right to write history and decide what’s as formerly?
The Douglas Treaties, foundational documents concerning land use by indigenous people in British Columbia, specifies that they have the right to use the land “as formerly,” which at the time was understood to mean “as if you guys hadn’t come,” but was later interpreted to enforce particular visions of what “traditional living” consists of. For example, line fishing using technology which hadn’t yet been invented at the time of contact became subject to a fine, because it’s not “as formerly.”
Dominion officials conceded jurisdiction to a governing body that treats rights as fiction. To rich whites benedictions, to most others afflictions, ignoring pre-existing native legal traditions
An economic depression in the mid-19th century triggered a transition from a form of governance in which the aboriginal people were largely left to their own affairs to one in which British sovereignty would be enforced, even in areas (almost all of what’s now BC) which had never negotiated a treaty, or even been conquered or in any other respect taken over by non-Native people. Overnight it went from (mostly) peaceful trade and cohabitation to absolute control of everything by the foreigners.
To propagate logics of “land improvement,” they obfuscated freedoms of animal movement. So meant maturation of this state puppet-show, problems for the migration of salmon and buffalo!
There was a mandate to improve the land, which in many cases meant little more than building fences to demarcate territory, in areas with many important migratory species. They even put barriers in the rivers, almost leading to the extinction of certain salmon
Way to show why we need system wide contestation: adaptation, innovation, patron annihilation! The implications of oppositional land dividing: providing only minimal per capita acreage while native freedoms continue to hemorrhage!
How many acres of land each person can claim has fluctuated significantly. At a time when white settlers could pre-empt 320 acres of land for homesteading, the indigenous people in BC were allowed only 10 acres per family of 5. Part of the reason for the low amount was that they were a fishing people, and so didn’t need much land for farming. Later, those fishing rights would also be greatly curtailed.

Foucault distinguished sovereignty from government; Tania Li and Nugent redefined state assessment
Sovereignty is coercive control backed up by violence; government is the distribution of resources. David Nugent did work showing how the old anthropological assumption of state vs community is untenable (in fact it’s way more complicated than that, with many subdivisions in both “community” and “state” pursuing different interests which change over time leading to many reversals). Tania Li developed a theory of Projects, Processes, Practices and Positions which is useful for analysing land use and transitions of power. Another small note: there’s a suspicious tendency for academics to refer to male theorists by their last name only and female theorists by first and last (so, Joseph Butler is just Butler, but Judith Butler is Judith Butler). I am guilty of that here; I didn’t change it when I noticed because fixing it would’ve messed up the rhythm.
Processes and projects frame coercive logics; practices and classist twists express interests of activists and pacifists and populists who might only care for opulence while the dominant’s centrality obscures true plurality; every complex system displays dynamicality! So, as positions flip with the shifting conditions, you should never base a theory on just strict oppositions!
There have been many activist/pacifist/populist movements throughout history, and they’ve almost always been largely self-interested, articulating concepts like pacifism because it’s politically useful, or because they don’t actually care enough to put their bodies on the line. Anthropology teaches us to be suspicious of how people position themselves, because their language choices typically hide the complexity of underlying motivations. Also, the state typically doesn’t just impose itself arbitrarily — it does so at a specific moment as part of a larger ongoing project (land improvement; the imposition of sovereignty) or process (climate change; extinguishment of native title).

With our presuppositions focusing on traditions, of wage labour at the fisheries we might make an omission. Employed for five months a year, survive the winter in fear, living with what you’re given’s no way to make a career, but competing for fish stocks still beats trying to farm rocks, and independent boat owners had to put up with cost blocks!
Not all Natives doing fishing during the period I was studying (1879-1925) were doing so “traditionally.” Many worked for commercial canning and fishing companies, because those were the best options for securing a livelihood amidst changing economic conditions.
So go to canneries for guarantees of small degrees of dignities but your expertise still gets traded in for Japanese! Employer rejection because of kinship connections? Alienating and depricating at new heights of perfection
Migrant workers, mostly from Japan, were easier for the fishing companies to control, because they didn’t have families or local knowledge they could fall back on. For this reason many native workers lost their jobs or were denied employment

Our governing system was never smooth on its surfaces but a cacophony of voices working at cross-purposes. Services ensuring land purchases, practices of exclusion, suffusion by settlers, unceded land’s prostitution, creating confusion, leaving Indian Affairs to clean up what’s theirs, a process that could only help the splitting of hairs!
Each governmental department has a different mandate and they often end up in conflict with one another. Indian Affairs was created to advocate within government for the needs of the native peoples, but ultimately it had very little say over anything, so mostly what it accomplished was pacifying resistance by convincing people that they were being heard, and delaying action until processes like settlement had time to continue to the point that the initial complaint couldn’t possibly be addressed without the use of violence against the settlers, which the state was never willing to do, and so even egregious violations of traditional territories went uncontested.
Pseudo-representation! Hegem’nous instrumentation! Sincerity of advocacy only furthered
Bigots don’t actually tend to do that much damage in the long run, because they get recognised and dealt with. It was the really nice people who genuinely meant well and could convince people to trust them who really screwed over the natives in the long run, because they were the ones who got the natives to go along with the structures of domination. The “as formerly” line in the Douglas treaties is a good example: no matter how well you meant by something, it’s up to future generations with their own interests to interpret and implement the structures you establish. The same dynamic exists today, for example in foreign aid and voluntourism. You may feel great about yourself for “helping,” and even be appreciated by the people there, but what are the long term structural implications of that engagement?
Allowed to forget the reasons for reserve allotment, access was opened up by the fisheries department.

The land reserves were unusually small because it was assumed that the livelihood of the natives came from the rivers, not the land. After years of infringement onto the already sparse land, the rivers were taken away as well, as the fisheries department opened them up for sport fishing and other uses.
Today the damage is unmended, results no-one intended, well meaning causes unduly commended
In the first version of this essay, I named Gilbert Sproat here. By all accounts he was a lovely man who earnestly meant well, argued for the allocation of enough land for natives to be able to be self-sufficient, and also pushed for improved access to elementary education. Wrote books including “The Nootka:Scenes and studies of savage life.” Though he resigned from the reserve commission in protest of their effectively genocidal aims, he also laid some of the groundwork for the devastation which was to come, and it’s an easy mistake to see him as a positive figure in the history of white-native
Dynamic disuniformity generated deformity, scornfully, at turns informally, cordially or forcibly sovereign authority inflicted this paucity on what was the majority. Whatever became of constitutional priority?
During the period studied, natives were still the overwhelming majority in BC. The alternation between friendliness, informality, bigotry and violence, more than a single mode of engagement, was to blame for how bad things got. A foundational document in BC refers to the “constitutional priority” of protecting native land rights, but with white supremacists in power, this was completely ignored and replaced with genocidal
Private property, once sought for protection, quickly became used as a tool for
In light of settlement, many natives were convinced that they should specify where they live so that they can be protected against infringement, but such specifications were then used against them to argue that all the land except where people were currently living should be up for grabs.

Foucault distinguished sovereignty from government, Tania Li and Nugent redefined state assessment.
Processes and projects frame coercive logics; practices and classist twists express interests of activists and pacifists and populists who might only care for opulence while the dominant’s centrality obscures true plurality. Every complex system displays dynamicality! So, as positions flip with the shifting conditions, you should never base a theory on just strict oppositions!

At the end of the day it’s not a matter of “government vs community,” or “whites vs natives” or “modernity vs tradition,” but of a tremendous diversity of beings with highly porous boundaries in complicated interactions, sometimes allying with or fighting one another, sometimes allying with former enemies or fighting former allies, sometimes splitting or amalgamating to form new groups. Some are tempted to demand freedom from government, but some method of resource distribution is important for continued mutual survival; abandonment is not a solution to suffering. However, governance and sovereignty are not the same as one another. We can acknowledge that it’s completely fucked up for the Queen to claim authority over unceded lands on the west coast, or for Canadians to take for granted their rights to whichever resources they want on the basis of the Queen’s sovereignty, and we can do that without rejecting the importance of some form of governmental structure to provide for the material and social needs of those who today live on the land, or for those who may do so in the future.