advent calendar

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Advent: expectation of light returning to the world. The Christian tradition, cribbed from the winter solstice, requires lack; absence prompts reflection. Preparation defines celebration by giving it edges; before you feast, you are meant to fast — to spend time in dark and quietness, unstimulated, bare, shivering.

*

A few days before Christmas, my mom and my sister and I descend on a local lot to pick out a tree. This year it was a Thursday evening, with the temperature just above freezing and the rain coming down. Shoulders hunched against the chill, I walked between the rows, steadying the remaining options for the pageant of deliberation and decision. My fingers stuck to the sap as it wept from the branches and hardened on the bark. We went for the somewhat scraggly but obviously in need of a home Charlie Brown tree, as usual. Our budget is $15…my mum can usually persuade the salesmen to throw in some branches, which she hopes to lash to the railings of her front steps. There isn’t time, though, and instead of decorating the house, the branches sit in the trunk for a week or two; driving anywhere feels like driving through the Pacific Northwest. This year, we put a $30 limit on gifts, and it has brought me more peace in this season than I’ve felt in many years.

*

An update of a project I worked on was released last week. When our research gets media attention, I get messages from people I went to high school with who I don’t talk to anymore. They have opinions to share couched as questions about inflation, thinly veiled suggestions that I shepherded reports toward publication while leaving boulders unturned — won’t prices increase if we pay people more? I am working on being more patient with these questions, trying to tune my responses to a Socratic key. This approach is harder and takes more time, but it’s ultimately more effective than giving an answer that requires no work on the part of the questioner. For every rhetorical criticism of a living wage, I receive a text message from a friend navigating the back-channels of advocacy for low-income renters asking for help on behalf of someone living in a bedsit above the questioner’s local pizza joint. The landlord won’t deal with the bedbugs; an electric radiator has tipped over and the element is inches from the polypropylene carpet. Maybe the next long-form census should ask how many times a month you opened the oven door to heat your home.

*

Every year on December 23rd, a friend organizes a holiday dinner for sex workers through a local advocacy and service group. The lunch-time gathering is held at St. George’s in the church hall. There are homemade sweets, and coffee and tea, and table service. There is ham and turkey and scalloped potatoes, milk rolls and butter and stuffing. Attendees dress up, or they don’t. I buzz around the banquet tables with serving carafes, refilling cups, smiling, making timid jokes. The children get their faces painted; one tugs at my skirt and asks me to pour him some Root Beer, since he’s not allowed Coke or Pepsi. When my name tag falls the floor, he picks it up and returns it to me. Later, we load the industrial dishwasher, scalding the plates clean while other volunteers pack up leftovers for folks to take home. The last time I used a Hobart I was 17, and I made $6.50/hour. A handsome man dresses up as Santa Claus and his assistant “Elfie” helps to hand out presents. People wear aprons, ask questions, help each other, hug near-strangers goodbye. I like being a useful body. Later, I mention to a friend that it has been a while since I’ve given my time rather than my money. She nods, cost-benefit analysis, sighs.

*

In December 2008, I spent my first Christmas away from my family, but was surrounded by new friends in rural Cape Breton. The night before Christmas Eve, I walked up the icy lane to a barn where people were keeping vigil to make my own visit. The year had taken someone I loved out of the world violently, and I felt moved to embody my heart’s blind wandering, stepping out into the cold alone, seeking something I couldn’t name. When I arrived at the barn, I found it strung with white lights, the cats nestled in the hay. A small wooden ledge held a piece of paper with instructions, and a pack of matches: “light a candle, and sing Silent Night to yourself.” I did, and wept.

*

On Christmas Eve, I sing. This year, the mass setting (from Praetorius, of ‘Lo how a rose e’er blooming fame) is for double choir — vaulting lines volley back and forth across the stalls. Singing lets my body help my mind: anxious by nature, I have no choice but to let the deeper, shared thing (the beat) ground me, and to do my part with what I have (my breath). On Christmas Eve I must sing because it reminds me of how to live for the rest of the year: to feel for the pulse, to trust the silences, and to listen to each other and give generously so we can make something warm and bright. Tonight I will watch the light travel up through the pews as the candles are lit, illuminating chapped lips and rosy cheeks, waiting patiently to share in that human gift of the light carried, the light returning.

 

 

somewhere in Carleton County, October 3, 2007

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Maybe halfway between Florenceville and Woodstock, where we ultimately stopped at a Pizza Delight for dinner that Wednesday. Having just spent the night at the Falls Brook Centre meeting the CIDA interns before they shipped off to Nicaragua or Bolivia or wherever it was they were going, learning about straw bale construction, eating kale salad around a farmhouse table, sharing stories and singing around a bonfire, muscles finally loosened from taking enough tentative steps blindfolded at the end of the Appalachians, learning what the Acadian forest smells like in the dark.

An introduction to attention, city kid standing wool-capped in the rain with the wrong shoes, learning about permaculture and food sovereignty, dozing off at times, losing balance. The country kids knew better than to close their eyes: had years of dirt under their nails from potato break — those weeks the McCains took them out of school, betting (correctly) that to 15-year-olds, the FLQ crisis was worth no more than $10/hour. This is how we were taught economics: before you were allowed to try the math, you needed to feel your shirt stick to the back of your neck, to give thanks for your cartilage after hours squatting near the earth.

The year after you died/were killed, the parties responsible got around to laying out what remained of your book-plated library for people to pick through. The campus branch of Amnesty International had organized a Day of Silence in solidarity with prisoners of conscience, and so I wept with my mouth closed as I picked through your collection, ostensibly proving through stoicism my dedication to your memory. Years later, on Halloween, I know better than to posture. Rest eternal, light perpetual, and whatever other murmured incantations I can muster, today and all days. The memorial you deserve is the simple gift you gave so freely, continuously — intellectual precision married to generosity of spirit, a home and a nudge out into the world.

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The results were clear before I went to bed on Thursday night. I spent Friday trying to make my frustration into an argument, but all I have to share is an emotional weather report: the shipping forecast of de-federation. Someone else will write the necessary analysis; indeed, many have already written (Laurie Penny’s piece in NS is, I think, especially worth reading, as are Lynsey Haley’s blog post at the LRB and Akwugo Emejulu‘s reflections at Verso). What follows is the opposite of a hot take.


A friend shows up for an anti-sexual violence campaign meeting in Oxford, May 2013, trousers cuffed to reveal floral socks in his loafers. When he opens his mouth to speak, I notice that his left front tooth has broken clean in half on a diagonal. He is the only man in the room, and the women inquire as to what happened to his mouth. He tells us he got a bottle in the face at a counter-protest against the English Defence League in Reading, twenty miles away. His health insurance won’t cover the dental, as the procedure is cosmetic.

~

In August 2013, I am cycling into the city centre, on my way to teach economics to visiting summer students. At the corner of Newton Rd and Abingdon Rd, a motorist pulls out, turning right to head out of town, ploughing me and my bicycle onto the hood of his car. I tumble off into oncoming traffic. As I peel myself from the ground, shaking, unable to put weight on the leg that was crushed between my bike and the car, I instinctively look to where the car’s driver would be sitting in a North American vehicle, and see what looks to be a seven-year-old boy. I am dazed. Then, there is a voice, asking “y’alright?”. I swear at the voice (I’m not “alright”), dishevelled and weeping, untangle myself from my bike, and throw it on the curb. As I turn back to the car, I watch it pull around me and escape down the road, heading away from the city.  Bystanders took the license plate down, one of them has called the police, another an ambulance. Someone brings me a popsicle from the shop on the corner to ice my leg. I’m in shock, but also confused: why would the driver take off like that? Failure to stop opens the door to a more serious charge than an accidental hit. Weary and dry-mouthed, I try to talk it over with the paramedic as we lurch along one-way streets up the hill to the JR. She thinks perhaps he had been drinking, or maybe he was undocumented. Thinking that I might jeopardize his ability to continue to live in the country by getting the police involved, I hesitate to file a report, but only for a few weeks. He contests the charges. The process takes almost nine months. He does not show up to court. I wonder if I have ruined his life.

~

Two of my friends visit the detention centre at Campsfield House, seven miles outside of the city centre, across the street from Oxford’s airport, which caters primarily to ‘executive travellers’. Officially, Campsfield is an ‘immigration removal centre’ — a grammatically confusing phrase. He does interpretation, translating from Mandarin to English and back again. We eat dinner together later and he tells me he doesn’t feel like he’s helping. She does accompaniment work, sitting with a young man who wants to get to know her better. She’s not sure what to do when he intimates romantic interest. The free shuttle from the station is meant to come every hour, but it is often late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. My friend waits for the shuttle with friends and family members of detainees. She sees them hurry to the station in janitorial scrubs, fast-food restaurant uniforms, sometimes with little ones in tow. They wait together for transportation to a place where city buses don’t stop, not speaking, for several hours. Sometimes she abandons hope of a ride first, sometimes they do.

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A departmental colleague did research on schooling in the parts of Wales that have suffered the most from industrial decline: the former coalfields, the valleys in the south, where, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, there are just 41 jobs for every 100 residents of working age and ability. Although the coalfields have seen more support from the European Structural Funds than they have from Westminster, that help has not been enough to pull these regions out of regional depression. In the South Wales valleys, ill health and disability claims are reported at rates twice those of the South East average. Onllwyn, the ward where Pride (2014) was set, is part of a district that voted Leave. I can’t find results that drill down to the level of that particular poll…but I wonder about the faces in the photo, which way they voted, why.

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In September 2013, I attended a workshop at Crossroads Women’s Centre in Camden on the criminalization of victims of sexual violence. Members of the audience rose to share stories of being misled by police officers and detectives, and subsequently jailed for retracting testimony in hopes of achieving a settlement. One of the presenters told us about abuses at Yarl’s Wood IRC, a ‘fully contained residential centre housing adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance‘ that opened in 2001. Management of the facility was taken over from the UKBA in 2007 by Serco, a firm that has held numerous private contracts for state security and detention services in the UK, Continental Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and North America. Serco’s CEO, Rupert Soames, is an alumnus of Eton and Worcester College Oxford, and a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill.  In July 2015, the Black Women’s Rape Action project and Women Against Rape released a report titled Rape and Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, 2005-2015, based on accumulated testimonies from former detainees. The report, which demanded the closure of Yarl’s Wood and all IRCs, was sent to all MPs in the House of Commons. In response to the dossier, Serco commissioned an independent investigation of abuses at Yarl’s Wood, which found that:

…there is not an endemic culture of abuse nor a hidden problem of inappropriate behaviour by staff at the centre.  The report, commissioned by Serco following a series of allegations, did however find serious concerns with staffing arrangements including capacity, training, and an inadequate proportion of female officers to care for women at the centre, and has made 35 recommendations for improvement.

Serco continues to win government contracts for various services in the United Kingdom, in spite of protests about maltreatment of service recipients and accusations of over-charging.

~

In May 2016, I was staying in East Oxford, visiting friends. Walking home one afternoon, I noticed a bumper sticker on an old MG hatchback in British Racing Green.

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In a city with of 158,000 with 32,000 students, 22% of adults have no or low educational qualifications. 3300 households are on the waiting list for social housing, and the median rent for a three-bedroom home is more than half of median annual earnings. The MG with the bumper sticker was parked on a side street off the Iffley Road, near the Donnington Bridge, in a neighbourhood ranked 8,387 out of 32,844 in England, where 1 is the most deprived. It is amongst the 30% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Further to the south east lies Blackbird Leys, a housing estate home to about 14,000 people, the vast majority of them born in the UK. According to the Indices of Deprivation, in 2010, the Northfield Brook ward, which covers part of the estate, was one of the 10% most deprived in England. Tensions between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ segments of the working class were exacerbated by Thatcher’s right-to-buy legislation, which further entrenched divisions between so-called ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ workers. Home ownership became a dividing line; those who owned property had less and less in common with more vulnerable tenants. The old Morris Motors factory, which employed 20,000 at its height, is now the MINI Plant Oxford, where there were 3700 employees (including temporary workers) in 2013.


 

A dear friend (who happens to be a classicist) has a good metaphor about weaving, women, and statecraft. I suppose it was Plato who first had the metaphor, but the friend introduced me to it. I had just moved back to Canada from England, and we were meeting for the first time. In the sun outside a local coffee shop, I listened to her talk about Penelope’s loom. My friend insisted that weaving was women’s work: the act of bringing diverse strands together into something meaningful.

Penelope: in my mind, a woman weaving and unweaving the tapestry. Since my imagination goes there first, the home on Ithaca is a colonial mansion with a wraparound veranda: there is sweet tea and a rocking chair, wicker, whitewash. The loom is filled with cool linen threads, in complementary colours, no single thread more fibrous than another. Typical. There are other ways to weave, more interesting ways that might ultimately have produced a social fabric that was at once stronger and more flexible: threads brought together more tightly, capable of holding something bigger than each of us.

To talk about ‘the working class’ as the segment of the population that voted to leave the EU is too simple. There are other factors at play. Certainly economics are crucial to understanding how this all came to pass, but if there is to be any way forward that isn’t an all-out culture war, responsibility for this result must be shared. We can lay a large chunk of it at the feet of David Cameron for his austerity project and at Michael Gove’s for his continued existence, but I think we have to remember that the so-called “failure of British multiculturalism” has deeper roots. Economic and cultural concerns are inseparable, and it is a mistake to act as though they can be neatly divided. The generation that voted to leave the EU are attached to Englishness in ways that the Remain campaigners did not anticipate or adequately address. That attachment should be understood as shot through with material concerns, or perhaps vice versa. While they were certainly misled by Farage and his ilk on the benefits of departure (the now-discredited pledge to spend £350m on the NHS every week comes to  mind), many are currently celebrating a victory, not wringing their hands, wondering what they’ve done.

The majority of Leave voters were children in the 1950s and 60s. They grew up in the midst of decolonization and the ensuing waves of migration from the former colonies to Britain. The systemic discrimination and violence faced by people arriving from the Caribbean, whose parents in many cases faced in the UK, that hostility was likely delivered by the elders of the generation who voted to make Britain English again. It’s not as though anyone laid out a welcome mat for new arrivals, whose visible presence in the 1950s and 60s emerged alongside heated debates about the state’s responsibility for industry and infrastructure amongst a wider population for whom the rationing of food and fuel were within recent memory. Although decolonization was in motion politically, the economic shackles of empire have since proven difficult to break. The wealth of the United Kingdom is built upon plunder: the country’s major institutions were funded by theft, and many continue to be. However, the fact of British imperialism is not in and of itself an argument for leaving the EU. Island nations are especially vulnerable to xenophobia — the boundary of the sea is a clear thing — and unfortunately, I think that Britain is the rule, rather than the exception.

The consequences of Brexit will emerge over time, and it’s hard to say right now what the future will look like. I’m not especially interested in predicting right now. To those of you excited by the prospect of a class war, please remember that struggle is the means by which justice is reached; battle is not justice’s equivalent. There will be casualties, and if you have no sense of the texture of this country, you may not be able to anticipate them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

on days of action: other possible worlds

When I started my undergrad, the students at St. Thomas were not particularly organized. Simply speaking the word “fees” (if you were Ella Henry​ or Craig Mazerolle​) got you booed in a crowded auditorium. There were no free buttons or colourful posters declaring opposition to mounting student debt. Advocating for reductions in tuition fees in union elections was seen as unrealistic; utopian, even. If you self-identified as a student activist or organizer (as opposed to a student politician), you could expect to be branded a radical. The nomenclature was fair, I think.

In 2009, a few second-year sociology students started getting together to talk about inequality and post-secondary education, weaving the theories in our readings together with the stories we told about ourselves, about our lives, doubling back every now and then to correct some ideas that didn’t make sense anymore: that you had to pay for something in order for it to have value, that education ought to be a private investment, not a public good. While the group was small, it was something. A few folks cut up magazines and newspapers and made collages to draw some attention to the group. Lots of the collages were posted around campus…I remember many of them being ripped down.

St. Thomas is a small, liberal arts, primarily undergraduate university, which also offers a few professional second degree programs. When I was there, the majority of enrolled students received some kind of government assistance, through provincial or federal grants or loans, which meant they had to qualify for that help in the first place. There were plenty of first generation university students from smaller towns in rural New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island: places with high unemployment rates, hollowed by deindustrialization, resource collapse, outmigration. Most of us were women. These things needed to be said aloud.

When we started organizing teach-ins, we brought people who could shed some light on the history of the student movement to speak. While hearing Dorothy Smith talk about being at Berkeley in the ’60s was certainly powerful, it was the space that such events created that was truly precious. The teach-ins were opportunities for students to talk openly about their struggles in ways that were not abstract. We gathered to be heard in our pain and anxiety; to name not just the crushing burden of debt, but the structures that rendered it seemingly inescapable; to see that in dreaming of another world, we weren’t alone.

When we started speaking about the impact that high tuition fees and soaring debt had on our education and our own lives, it was easier to see how the privatization of the university degrades education more generally: discouraging students from pursuing disciplines less readily monetized, and dissuading students from racialized and working-class backgrounds from enrolling at all. With less diversity, the quality of thought itself is corrupted. This is to say nothing of the impact that cuts to public funding for post secondary education have on teaching and research in the modern university, characterized as it is by ballooning administrations and the separation of the professoriate into tiers. To reflect and say together that we do not want what is being imposed on us, that we do not consent, that we can imagine and build something better and more just is a sign of our abilities and our potential.

The Day of Action is an effective lobbying tool. Mass mobilization gets things done in government, but it does more than that. It is an exercise in hope. It is a powerful articulation of our values. We write the future we want with our bodies, in the streets, together.

on food poverty and economic policy: connecting the dots

On Monday, an Oxfam report revealed that the three main providers of food aid in the United Kingdom gave over 20 million meals to hungry people in the fiscal year of 2013/14:  a whopping 54% more than they gave the year before. The report found that while food banks are generally a service of last resort, people on low incomes and in precarious work increasingly have no other choice. Many find themselves forced to choose between paying rent and paying for food to eat.

Those who do turn to food banks (the majority of them funded by The Trussell Trust) can expect to receive enough to feed their household for a minimum of three days. The Trust describes their packages as “nutritionally balanced.” But these packages are supposed to be emergency food –and that means while they may include enough calories for the short term, they do not contain adequate fiber or protein for an appropriate diet over the long run. This sort of assistance is meant for people in crisis: those on the brink of full-blown disaster.

In a food bank, crisis is treated like an acute condition: it’s severe and threatening, but it will pass.

In reality, crisis has become the new normal. Low and stagnant wages are the norm, job security is a distant dream, housing prices continue to climb, and benefit schemes have been “reformed” beyond recognition.

And so, more and more people are driven into poverty, with few avenues for escape. Many who depend on food banks to feed themselves and their families are the working poor, seldom covered by unions, and thus especially vulnerable to changes in working conditions that undermine their ability to support themselves, whether by cutting their hours or forcing them to work longer for lower pay, barely earning enough to set aside £6 a week to spend on groceries.

Thus, the breadline grows ever longer.

The dramatic increase in reliance on food banks in the United Kingdom isn’t new. The Trussell Trust has advertised “record numbers” of clients every year for the past four years, with numbers more that doubling each year since 2010/2011, and trebling this past year.

These conditions are not accidental. They are a direct result of government policies—polices that drive wages down and keep them low, weaken workers’ ability to influence the conditions of their employment, allowing employers to squeeze more and more profit out of less and less labour.

Like the illnesses it causes, crisis is chronic.

Oxfam’s report recommends that the government re-instate the safety net principle, and strengthen what remains of the welfare state. While Oxfam’s specific policy recommendations are laudable, they are characteristic of a conciliatory Left that asks politely for concessions, hoping that an appeal to the decency and humanity of those in power will be adequate motivation for the government to intervene.

Unfortunately, that hope is dangerously naive. Government rhetoric focuses on getting people back into work, evading larger questions about the type of jobs on offer. Precarious, low-wage work with no guaranteed hours generate profits for employers; they will not lift anyone out of poverty.

Those of us who campaign for public health should hold no illusions about the current government’s dedication to ending hunger, or indeed ending any poverty at all. We would do well to remember the words of 19th century German physician, Rudolf Virchow, who held that “Medicine is a social science and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”  Food banks will not and cannot end food poverty – we need an economic system that puts people before profits to do that.