Monday, June 20, 2011

NDP Convention: Party Activists vs. Community Militants

In French the word for "activist" is "militant".

And time and time again here at the NDP convention the words are used interchangeably, particularly by the plethora of anglophones who has taken suddenly to making addresses riddled with French phrases. 

But, a clear distinction of the words is required.

Sitting here for the better part of three days at the convention, it is abundantly clear that on a spectrum of moderation and militancy, the party overwhelmingly favours moderation. Policies are watered down, controversial items are censored from public discussion and party elections are pre-ordained.

Time and time again, speakers approach the mikes on the convention floor during the policy debates and state: "Mr. / Madame speaker, I support this policy but it doesn't go far enough." Yet the convention grinds along self-congratulatory, adopting vacuous "progressive" policy.

Illustrative of but one example was a policy motion on Youth Right's proposed by a young lady from Vancouver East that I met on the bus on the last morning of the convention. She explained that she had spend considerable time crafting the policy consulting with the National Youth-in-Care Network, First Call and other such relevant organizations all of whom emphasized to her the need to adopt meaningful policy that leads to concrete outcomes. Accordingly, she drafted a smartly worded  three part resolution ("Resolution Reaffirming our Commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child") calling for the NDP to initiate an educational campaign and to work towards establishing a National independent children's commissioner. Her policy acumen was for naught as the resolution was prioritized at number 25 (of 26 followed only by a resolution rejecting the NDP's participation in the one-sided lobbying efforts of the "Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism").  This young lady expressed some disappointment that another resolution pertaining to children's rights ("Resolution on Children's Rights") was seen as a more appropriate motion to table and prioritized well over hers. The "replacement" motion is generic calling upon the convention to support a conceptual idea (Children's Rights) that is simple, ineffectual and self-evident.

More sinister is the overt and deliberate movement to prevent a resolution supporting the Canadian boat to Gaza from so much as hitting the convention floor. In the plenary session proceeding the convention, grassroots organizers arrived in droves to support the reprioritization of the motion from the bottom of the heap where party staff had relegated it to the top of the pile so that it could be debated by the full assembly. The resolution had overwhelming support in the room until moments before the vote. NDP staffers arrived in droves ( multiple first-hand sources claim that at least 50 MP's and staffers were involved) standing at the back of the room exclusively to vote down the resolution. And with this deft manipulation of democratic procedure, the convention ensured that the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people would receive no visibility at the convention. Indeed, the only visibility that the enitre Palestine-Israeli question received in the entire convention was a full-page ad in the official convention guide which proclaims that, "The NDP and the . . . Jewish community, together in our commitment to the state of Israel."

And so the NDP is indeed an activist party, in the same way that any political movement builds a base of loyal functionaries who work to the interest of the cause. And here the cause is abundantly clear - to make Jack Layton Canada's next prime minister. This ambition is clearly the focus of this convention  and when Jack talks about "having big dreams", he is talking about a stint in 24 Sussex Drive. The crowd response is euphoric.

At my table a delegate from Humbold Saskatchewan is the self-appointed whip. She urges me to stand cheering Jack on. The uniformity of his support is critical and, according to the party activists, well worth a few compromises on fringe issues and some moderation on policy declarations.

And while I cannot fault the logic of party organizers in their efforts to appeal to a broad and conservative audience I do note that a significant wedge is being driven within the party. 

On the one side are the party activists who are working tirelessly to build a well organized, well funded, political machine and on the other are those that remain stoic to their values of social justice, the need for structural change and the importance of clear direct actions to confront the growing threats that face the most marginalized in our society.

The chasm only promises to grow as deteriorating economic conditions and Harper's ruthless domestic and international agenda take hold. Surely under these conditions, the need and desire for more militant tactics will accelerate. 

Over and over again, throughout the convention, we are told that the party's breakthrough on the May 2nd election was the result of fore-sight, of looking ahead and anticipating changes in voter sentiment.

However, over the course of this convention, it has become clear to me that its enthusiasm and excitement at its electoral breakthrough has blinded it to the great challenges that will befall many Canadians in the coming years. While party activists believe their prospects are bright, grassroots organizers know that a down and dirty struggle will be unfolding at street level.

And so the question now remains: Will the NDP continue to disassociate itself from the bevy of grassroots organizations and organizers, undermining their efforts through denouncements and the straggling of their funding sources or, will party activists overcome their obsession with moderation and their pursuit of power to be a part of a renaissance in radical activity. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

School Photo Project

For the last several months I have been working at Charles Dickens Elementary School with students from kindergarten to grade two. We have just mounted  a very exciting display of their photographic work.

The photographs on display themselves, are a beautiful and diverse display of talent. However, the underlining narratives of the work and the intimacy of the subject matter make for an extremely moving exhibition. The students have undertaken to document a fragment of their lives and the results are a startling affirmation of the small beauty of being alive.

Significantly, many of the most compelling works were derived from students who have limited English communication proficiency. For these kids, the photography was an excellent opportunity to tell us about the world they live in and what they care about.

Please join me for a guided tour of the exhibition: WEDNESDAY JUNE 23rd 3:45 - 4:45. Charles Dickens Elementary, 3351 Glen Dr. (entrance on 17th St.)


I worked with one group of six students every week. At the beginning of the week, I presented the project to the group, showed a slideshow of my work and/or other students work and discussed how photography can be used to document things that are important to them in their lives. Together we brainstormed  things (objects, people, places etc.) from their lives that they would like to take pictures of validating that any subject matter could be a great picture . Cheap, identical, 9 MP, plastic lensed digital cameras were distributed to each kid whereupon they received some instruction on some fundamental concepts of photography and the use of some basic functions of the camera (self-timer, disabling the flash, and reviewing their content. And then, off into the world they went armed to take up to 712 pictures.

At the end of the week, they returned with their cameras and I downloaded the images onto my computer. The group reconvened and together we went through all of the images that each student took. As we were flipping through the content, I tagged all of the images that generated excitement from either myself, the teacher's aid, the photographer or his/her peers.

The children were excited by the project but, while the students who had yet to participate waited in anticipation for their turn, the students you were selected earlier, craved further engagement with their images and the process. Using the selected images (which accounted for approximately 25% of the total images taken, I printed enormous 24" X 72" contact prints which were cut up into a small package of images that were distributed to every student. In total, approximately 1000 small card-like prints were distributed to the 42 students.

The classroom teachers sent the package of cards home along with a notice asking the families to remove any cards that they wished to be omitted from the ongoing work. Thereafter, the students selected a number of images that they wished to display as well as a favourite that was printed as an 8.5" X 11" enlargement. Their selections, the enlargement, a portrait of themselves, a brief biographical statement and an explanation on why they choose the image they did for enlargement was mounted on a sheet of black bristle board. et viola c'est ca.

The project statement  can be found here.

And the original slideshow which I showed to the kids to start the project can be found here.

Don't hesitate to leave your thoughts and/or feedback.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Photographing our Lives

Shows hangs next week!

Project Statement:
In the monotony of our everyday lives we sometimes forget the acute nature of being alive in this world. We forget the incredible gifts of having friends, family, and homes. We forget the poignant sadness that makes our world rich with feeling. In approaching the young children (aged 5-8) of Charles Dickens Elementary School with a photo project, I wanted them to take the cameras and engage their lives. I wanted them to turn their lenses onto their own worlds and photograph the moments, objects, places and people that were important to them.
The results have been astounding. Every one of the 41 children involved in the project returned with a camera full of memorable intimate images. As a photographer myself, I crave photographs that authentically illustrate the small nuances of being alive in the world and these children, embracing the project, photographed their worlds with sensitivity and great interest.
Most moving for me has been the pride that the students have shown in their work. Different from a product oriented pride, where a child enjoys having made a nice drawing or something of that ilk, these children are exhibiting a pride in the beauty they have found in their own lives. 
In now displaying and providing audience for their efforts, we join together in affirming the value that their unique lives have in this world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kids Photographing their Lives.

The  Charles Dicken Photo Project

I am now able to present, a selection of photographic work from Charles Dickens school made by kids in kindergarten to grade 2.

I've been working with 6 students  per week during which time i give a brief introduction to photography, teach them about the camera and some of it's basic features (self-timer, zoom, turn flash off etc.) and encourage them to take as many pictures as they like within their world. A standard camera cheap digital camera is provided by the school for the purpose of this project.

The rest of their week, the students spend photographing. Some kids have taken minimal pictures 8-15 others go nuts and have taken over 500 (cameras are 9MP and equipped with 2GB cards). To date, every kid has taken photographs that are in at least some way moving. Many of the images are actually quite brilliant. Indeed, I am humbled by their intimacy and authenticity.

The next phase of the project is now to produce hard output for the children. The lovely staff at the Hastings and Cambie outlet of Opus are working closely with me to produce an enormous "contact sheet" of over 600 images on a nice thick paper. Volunteer parents at the school will cut up these 4' by 12' sheets into beautiful individual cards featuring a selection of their own work.

My hope is that the kids will value these small cards and share them with each other and talk about them serving as an intimate alternative to other trading cards that populate their lives. Altogether I hope they will come to a familiarity with each other's lives and a sense of pride in being able to self-ascribe value to the important aspects in their very specific lives. Additionally, the classroom teachers are preparing some programming to  re-integrate the images into day-to-day programming.

Looking ahead, we're excited to be planning "art openings" both in the school itself as well as in the community at-large.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fear Driving Jewish Sentiment to the Right

Yoav Shamir's film "Defamation" takes aim at the New-York based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and their on-going efforts to confront anti-Semitism in the world.

Shamir, an Israeli-Jew contends that he has never experienced anti-Semitism and wishes to learn more about this terrifying international phenomenon. Shamir's exploration leads him on a journey through Israel, America and Europe where he is able to clearly deconstruct the mechanisms by which the specter of anti-semitism is created and promoted.

In Shamir's sincere lampoon we are able to see that while the ADL does earnestly advocate for Jews who are not granted religious leave for Jewish holidays, the ADL's essential purpose is to promote the existence of anti-Semitism in order to reinforce it's own leverage as an international lobbyist in support of Israeli militarism.

The specific target of Shamir's irony is one Abe Foxman, director of the ADL. As we see Foxman cavorting with world leaders, we understand him to be playing a delicate confidence game, where his power to anoint anti-Semites leads to various international concessions to Israel and world Jewry. Shamir's point is that this anti-Semitism is largely amorphous and that Foxman's barking is self-serving hyperbole.

Norman Finkelstein author of "The Holocaust Industry: Reflection on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" is also featured prominently in Shamir’s film and often is the direct target of Foxman’s bark. More to the point, Finkelstein, whose very controversial view on the holocaust and the state of Israel are well considered has been publicly mauled. In an intimate scene in Finkelstein’s apartment we are privy to the impact that his stance has had on his life. Receiving hate mail, unable to gain tenure at a university despite an excellent academic record, Finkelstein is spurned to the margins where he struggles to address the public censure of his ideas and his label as an anti-Semetic self-hating Jew.

Naomi Klein, joins Finkelstein in controversy reasoning that a resurgence of anti-Semitism has been an important plank in the Israeli right-wing movement. In 2002, Klein pointed to the election of the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen, who cashed in on a wave of anti-Semitism as a great victory for Likud leader Ariel Sharon whose policies were driven by the very fear of anti-Semitism.

Klein doesn't deny the existence of anti-Semitism as a potent political cache in Europe but argues that Sharon and his ilk certainly contribute to its existence and not surprisingly stand the most to benefit from its existence. The same holds true for Foxman who is chronically searching for the clear-cut case of anti-Semitism that proves out his point and justifies his organization’s stature as the best funded Jewish charity in the world.

Clearly, anti-Semitism is big business and recently, Rush Limbaugh, conservative American commentator and darling to an estimated audience of 20 million has weighed-in on the subject and earned the ire of Foxman who has labeled his comments as "anti-Semitic".

Limbaugh, the self-appointed moral compass of the Republican guard, wondered aloud if the American Jewish community (which reportedly voted about 78% in favour of Obama in the 2008 presidential election) was experiencing "buyers remorse". Here is Foxman's take on it: “Limbaugh told his listeners: ‘To some people, banker is a code word for Jewish; and guess who Obama is assaulting? He’s assaulting bankers. He’s assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there’s – if there’s starting to be some buyer’s remorse there.’” In context Limbaugh was in conversation with his Jewish friend Norman Podhoretz author of "Why are Jews Liberals".

Well, this makes for great stuff because for Foxman, Limbaugh has emerged as a great figure to prove his relevancy in America conveniently waving the age old flag of the Jewish banker who controls the nation's finances. It's scary stuff those Jews and their banking conspiracies and Foxman is quick to jump all over it aware, that Limbaugh's sword cuts with great incision as these Wall street bankers are none too popular in middle America these days. In this sense, Limbaugh's commentary is downright chilling.

But Foxman, perhaps a little naive has taken the bait and is now entrapped in Limbaugh's "who loves Israel the most" snare and Limbaugh has some pretty steadfast allies in the Christian Evangelical Right, and Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). What we have unfolding folks, is a well orchestrated campaign to challenge Jewish America's support of the Democratic party and the pervasive liberalism of American Jewish culture.

Indeed, Podhoretz, a long-time conservative commentator points out that the very factions of the American Jewish community that most closely align with the Republican Party are the orthodox Jews whose social values around key wedge topics like abortion and homosexuality resonate nicely with the Republican Party’s platform. Podhoretz makes the case that these orthodox Jews by virtue of their adherence to religious doctrine, are more Jewish than the melting pot of liberal secular Jews. Indeed, in my own experience skirting on the periphery of the ultra-religious Hassid communities, I have been challenged to consider that as a Jewish male dating a non-Jewish female, I am performing anti-Semitic acts that undermine the integrity of the Jewish people (as Jewish lineage is traditionally passed on through the mother). Moreover, this same significant faction would argue that real Jews follow Torah and secular Jews, are merely biding their time living wasted lives outside of the embrace of God. Podhoretz's essential conclusion is that these Jewish Liberals are not actually Jewish but liberal ideologues posing as Jews.

What we are seeing is a struggle to own being Jewish. The reward of owning the Jewish label in the post-holocaust world is multitude, a strong base of financial support, a powerful voting block, a strong sense of entitlement and, an unwavering moral authority. All of these benefits have a significant impact on the ability to control the American and international middle-eastern policy agendas.

Naturally, the currency that drives the market for Jewish allegiance is fear.

Foxman has built a career around it and with Obama seen as "soft" in support of Israel, Limbaugh is hoping to make some serious in-roads. But, the disturbing aspect is that the greater the extent of actual anti-Semitism, the greater the profit and benefit to those who use fear-mongering to own Jewish sentiment.

In returning to Shamir’s film, his view that anti-Semitism does not really exist might be a bit optimistic however, his point that the mainstream Jewish community perpetuates the fear of anti-Semitism as a means of maintaining a cloistered social order is well taken.

For Foxman and the mainstream Jewish leadership at-large, there is a great danger. In maintaining the air that dissent on Israeli military aggression is anti-Semetic, they have paved the way for the ultra-right wing conservative movement of the US to claim the mantle of Israel’s best protectorate.

The world is clearly becoming increasingly polarized around Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people. If Foxman et all, do not open the scope of discourse on the matter they will continue to back Israel into a corner where their greatest allies are truly the most ardent of anti-Semites. In my view, stifling the diversity of Jewish opinion, the ADL does more to strengthen the culture for anti-Semitism than defeat it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

photo presentation for kindergarten class

i've started a photography program at my son's school the goal of which is to try and teach kids to photograph the very unique nature of their own lives. 

i hope the process will be an affirming one that allows each kid to see their own lives in a way that inherently embodies an aesthetic reality. 

- sort of like how my son takes forever to walk down the streets of our neighbourhood these days as he is enthralled with the beauty and smell of the cherry and apple blossoms. 

the world itself is a subjective formulation, i would love for these children to give themselves a little to the beauty that their own eyes can form.

below is the slideshow that i prepared as an introduction to the project. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

a post-olympic return to tent city

went to tent city today.

i hadn't been there for a while and wanted to see how things were doing post-olympics.

it certainly is a different place. A more sparse crowd populates the lot and the large swinging main gate was pinned shut. i entered through a much more modest door in the middle of the fence. 

i joined a group of homeless folk on chairs in a circle around a recently extinguished fire. it was about 11:30 am. 

i offered myself as appreciative of their work and they quickly got the gist that i was there to help out a bit.

everyone was pretty interested in water. one lady from missouri thought that another guy should get his feet washed with it. frank wanted a few bottles of it to drink. another guy suggested big drums full of water. a last guy was kinda more interested in a truck and delivering some irrigation piping and fittings. i listened to his plan to bring water from one of two adjacent buildings. he was also interested in a kiddies pool from walmart which he would turn into some kind of solar shower. all very reasonable ideas but not within, my immediate capabilities.

finally i said i could get water from the london drugs. someone seemed to get pissed off about the waste of the plastic bottles but even so, i thought it was practical to get those bottles.

frank volunteered to come with me which was great because together we would be able to bring back 2 cases instead of just one. 

inside the london drugs, we found the last two big cases of water and frank asked if i had enough for a chocolate bar for him  too. seeing as how he was willing to help me carry the water and also, was pleasant company. i agreed. he wanted one with lots of nuts so he got an o'henry and i grabbed a max of nuts and dried fruits.

on our way back he told me which small town he was from and confided that he was working on dealing with his crack thing. i agreed that a crack thing is a tough thing.

the water was well received. i sat down again and listened to their conversation. talking about their wet blankets and needing to get them washed. only some of them could hang over the fence in the sun. and they needed to be dried before they could be washed. they drank the water. they dried the water. they passed around the trail mix. a few more people came to the circle. one guy poitely introduced himself as jesus.

the fellow who had been talking about the irrigation was still thinking about his grand plans. he wanted to build a garden so that they could grow their food. he need a trailer to load up the concrete debris and he needed that irrigation tubing along with some fittings. definitely not copper fittings though, they would be stolen in a second. 

finally i left to head back to my office. i thought about the olympics, the impracticability of the collective vision these folks were desperate to create and how a little olympic success would be a spontaneous movement of citizen's acting with compassion to help real people overcome their problems large or small.

i left wondering if the next time i returned i might come with a full packs of smokes or perhaps better, a loaf of my sourdough bread with a jar of peanut butter. i probably also have a some extra jam somewhere too.