Wednesday, 25 July 2012

10 Ways Not To Be A Pompous Jerk (A Response to Jerry Agar of the Toronto Sun)

Yesterday I came across an article in the Toronto Sun that made my blood boil. The article, which was entitled '10 Ways Not To Be Poor', began with the opening salvo "The perpetually poor are not blameless." (Right off the bat you know where this train is going.) Sun columnist and 'conservative radio personality' Jerry Agar then proceeds to offer ten pearls of wisdom as to how to avoid being chronically destitute, such as don't see life is a lottery, don't set low goals and learn how to "manage your emotions." Thanks Mr. Spock. That's really useful!

Of course, Mr. Agar makes no mention of extenuating factors such as mental illness, physical ailments, domestic violence, inadequate public transportation, public safety concerns (in many cities) and other problems that contribute to trapping people in poverty. Nor does he acknowledge the importance of community organizations, educational programs and cultural institutions (all of which depend on government support for their existence) in helping people break free of the poverty trap. Moreover, he derides "pop culture and self-help programs" for instilling a culture of "wishing and hoping" while simultaneously spewing out a parade of platitudes taken straight from a third-rate self help book. Sometimes the irony truly writes itself.

What really gets me about this article, though, is what its actual intended purpose is. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a poverty-stricken person with two jobs, three kids to feed, a Mount Kilimanjaro-sized pile of bills on the kitchen table, disconnected power and an impacted molar that you can't afford to get fixed. You pick up the Sun at your bus stop at 11:00 pm on your way home and you read Jerry Agar's column, which its sage advice such as "God helps those who help themselves" and "Some low-income people find a way to save for the future, but they do so by foregoing $300 Nike shoes." Is there a single low-income person thus far who has read that article and thought to themselves, "Wow, I hadn't thought of that! I see the error in my ways!" I doubt even Jerry Agar can imagine such an occurrence.

Why, then, did he choose to inflict this article on the public? On this blog I make a conscious effort to write things that are either a) entertaining, b) enlightening, or c) a bit of both. Agar's column is none of the above, which to my mind leaves only two options. One - he could be deliberately trying to piss off his readers for pure shock value. Two - he's engaging in classic right-wing journalistic masturbation aimed at readers who enjoy nothing more than stewing in their own smug sense of superiority over those 'silly' poor people are 'silly', while simultaneously giving them an outlet for their righteous indignation over tax dollars going to social programs designed to help people who don't ever 'help themselves'. The first I can respect, although he's a far cry from a Christopher Hitchens in the wit department. The second I just can't get behind.

With that in mind, here is a Top Ten of my own dedicated to Jerry Agar and others like him. Call it 10 Ways Not To Be An Asshole Columnist, or something like that.

1) Ask yourself what the point of your article is. And unless it actually enlightens, entertains or shocks (in an entertaining or clever manner), think perhaps about writing something else.

2) Back up your facts when you make accusations. For example, if you're going to accuse poor people of mismanaging their finances (or buying athletic footwear that they can't afford), have at least some anecdotal evidence.

3) Try not to make the same point again and again while pretending they're different points. For example, "believing in the quick fix," "believing life itself is a lottery" and "believing in wishing and hoping" are, if I'm not mistaken, the same point worded in three different ways. That's annoying, and not to mention a transparently cheap way of padding your points to reach the number ten.

4) Don't make crass assumptions about people you don't know. When you say things like "Stay off illegal drugs and off alcohol if it causes problems in your life" you're essentially insinuating that everyone who is poor is an addict, which results in deepening existing stigmas against marginalized groups, thereby lessening people's likelihood of breaking out of poverty. (OK, this is kind of the same point as number two, but so important that I think it's worth mentioning twice.)

5) Don't insult your reader by stating the obvious. When you spout crap like "Drunks are bad at self-analysis," not only do you sound like an idiot but you're most likely to alienate your readership - unless your reader is of exactly the same mind as yourself, in which case they have no need for this article.

6) Don't foist advice on people that isn't really advice. If, for example, you say "Don’t have children until you are able to financially care for them" and your reader is an 18-year-old single mom struggling to get by, what do you expect her to do? Un-birth her child? Oh, and accusing her of being a 'child abuser' doesn't help.

7) If you're going to invoke scripture, do it properly. As my old pal Tyler Gingrich (aka The Political Pastor) pointed out to me, the line "God helps those who help themselves" is nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, many if not most Christians consider these words to be contrary to the Biblical message of God's grace. If nothing else, it's a tired cliche that doesn't really mean anything but is so prevalent that most people assume it's in the Good Book. It isn't.

8) If you're going to criticize government policy, offer some potential alternatives. As opposed to simply saying "We’ve spent billions on a “war on poverty” to negligible effect as there are still huge numbers of poor people" and "Perhaps we should demand more from people who stay on public support for decades and for successive generations," it would perhaps be more beneficial to offer some alternative strategies. To not do so suggests that you have no more idea than anyone else what to do to resolve the problem of inequality in our society.

9) Offering links to useful sources would be nice. The great thing about the Internet is that you can create links to other useful sources of information. And when it comes to a hugely consequential issue like poverty, you would think that the author would provide some 'further information'. Nobody's asking you to be an expert on everything. But it would be nice if you'd give credit to people who know more than you do on the subject, and have more to offer readers who are struggling to improve their lot in life.

10) Please stop repeating the line "It is not too much to ask." That's just annoying.

I should probably qualify all this by saying that I don't disagree with the assertion that individual bad decisions are a factor that contributes to the cycle of poverty. Nor am I some loony leftist whose response to everything is throwing more money at the problem. In fact, I do believe that we are a culture with a huge sense of entitlement much of the time, a characteristic that both the ideological left and the ideological right display in abundance - albeit of a different plumage. The ideological left expects government to coddle society. The ideological right gets incensed when asked to fork out for anything that doesn't directly apply to the individual taxpayer's narrow set of circumstances, such as alleviating poverty, solving the climate crisis or keeping ballet companies from going bankrupt.

Poverty is a colossally complex problem with innumerable factors, some of which are derived by personal behaviour and others that are tied to institutionalized inequality of one sort or another. My fundamental problem with the article in question is that it insinuates that all of us are born into this world with equal opportunities and that 'privilege' - be it of the racial, gender or socioeconomic variety - does not exist. I most strongly disagree and I would love to hear Jerry Agar's argument to the contrary.

Incidentally, your comments - bouquets and brickbats alike - are more than welcome. And Jerry, if you're reading this, I invite you with open arms to respond. And please be nice. It's not too much to ask.

Monday, 9 July 2012

7 Countries Whose Names Are Wrong

As the country once (and largely still) known as 'Burma' has made its initial tentative steps toward democracy following half a century of harsh military rule, an interesting conflict has emerged between the still-ruling generals and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner has up to now stubbornly refused to refer to her home country as 'Myanmar' in spite of the country's official name change in the late 1980s. Now, with Suu Kyi's party negotiating its way into the country's political mainstream, the geriatric generals still in charge have issued a stern warning against referring to the country as 'Burma'.

"When I'm elected president, I'm changing this country's name
to an incomprehensible symbol. That should shut them up!"
The name 'Burma', the pro-Myanmar argument goes, is a vestige of British colonialism, an Anglicization of the name of the country's predominant ethnic group, the Burman (Bamar) people. The name 'Myanmar', by contrast, is an classical literary term for the same group - sort of like the use of the word Yamato for the Japanese nation.

Suu Kyi, by contrast, asserts that the name 'Myanmar' is a product of the massive government crackdown in 1988 and points out that the name change was imposed on the country without the slightest input from the Burmese people. (A whole host of names were changed during the same period - Rangoon to 'Yangon', Pagan to 'Bagan' and so on.)

So who's right in this debate? In a sense, both sides are. Burma/Myanmar (or 'The Country', as Hillary Clinton diplomatically called it on her recent trip there) is a diverse multiethnic society of which the Burmans are but one (albeit predominant) cultural and linguistic group. Suu Kyi further asserts that the government's name-changing campaign also saw a vast number of communities in non-Burman regions changed in ways that rendered them nonsensical in the Shan, Karen, Rohingya and other minority languages. In that sense, neither Burma nor Myanmar is cut out for the job.

But is this a big deal? After all, many countries have names that, when you really dig deep, don't make that much sense. Countries have been named for all sorts of bizarre reasons. Both Japan and Vietnam get their names from their geographical relationship to China. Nippon (日本) means 'Sun-Source' in reference to its easterly position to China, whereas Việt Nam is an inversion of 'Nam Việt' (南越), which refers to its southerly position vis-a-vis the ancient Chinese province of 'Yueh' - the antecedent to present-day Guangdong province.

Further west, the country known as 'Russia' gets its name from the 'Kievan Rus', which was located in present-day Ukraine, as does 'Belarus', while the name 'Ukraine' itself merely means 'borderland'. And then there's 'France', whose name means 'Land of the Franks', a Germanic tribe whose empire centred primarily on present-day Westphalia in Germany. Indeed, it seems that many of the world's most brazenly patriotic countries are named after other places.

Some country's names, however, are flat-out incorrect. However, in none of these cases has there been any move to change said names. For better or for worse, people have come to like their incorrect nomenclature - and in some cases the bizarreness of their names has become a matter of tongue-in-cheek national pride.

1) Canada

Canadians all know this story - at least we all learned it in junior high. 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier and his scurvy-stricken crew were directed southward along the St. Lawrence River to what the locals referred to as Kanata. The settlement in question was in fact called Stadacona (located where Québec City now stands), what with kanata simply being an Iroquoian word for 'village', but the misunderstanding quickly stuck - and survives to this day.

2) Peru

At least with Canada it was an easy-to-fathom misunderstanding. The naming of the present-day Republic of Peru, on the other hand, was an act of geographical (and cultural) laziness to say the least. The name 'Peru' derives from a mispronunciation of Birú, a chief who ruled over a region near the Bay of San Miguel, Panama, in the early 16th century. For whatever reason, the Spanish conquistadors leapt to the assumption that the guy ruled everything south of what was then known to them, oblivious to the proud denizens of the Inca Empire and their imprint on the place. It certainly wasn't an auspicious start to this relationship.

3) Senegal

The prevailing explanation of the etymology of this west African nation is rather similar to that of Canada. The story goes that the name derived from a miscommunication between local fishermen and the Portuguese explorers who arrived there in the 15th century, who interpreted the Wolof phrase sunu gaal, meaning 'our canoe', as the name of the river - and by proxy the country. While this explanation remains contested, the canoe story has embedded itself into Senegalese cultural lore and is often invoked in calls for national solidarity along the lines of "We're all in the same canoe."

4) Madagascar

Thanks to the DreamWorks film by the same name, many young North Americans are probably oblivious to the fact that Madagascar is an actual country. And of those who are aware of its actual existence off the coast of southeastern Africa, very few probably know that the name is not of local origin but was in fact conferred on it by the 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who mistook the place for Mogadishu. Granted, this was a more flattering comparison in the 13th century, when Mogadishu was a grant cultural and economic capital of East Africa, but it still a remarkably egregious mistake.

5) Singapore

The modern city state of Singapore was first founded in the 14th century by a Tamil prince named Sang Nila Utama as part of the Srivijayan Empire. The name itself, an Anglization of the Sanskrit Singapura (सिंहपुर) - which means 'Lion City', derives from the prince's alleged spotting of a lion on the shores of where Singapore now stands. While the lion has since become an emblem of the place, unless it escaped from a local zoo it was almost certainly a tiger, as lions have never been an indigenous species to the region.

6) India

The name 'India' derives from the Indus River, which together with the Ganges and the Brahmaputra form the crucible of South Asian civilization. While not incorrect at its origins, the Indus, since 1947, has flowed in its entirety in Pakistan. Interestingly, Pakistan's name is also somewhat suspect - not so much incorrect as a product of wishful thinking, the product of an acronym of Punjab-Afghania-Kashmir-Sindh-Baluchistan. A reaching acronym to say the least, and not wholly accurate given the still disputed nature of Kashmir.

7) Greenland

In a perverse turn of fate, man-made global warming may yet prove Erik Thorvaldsson to be a prophet of sorts. Nevertheless, this now autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark is probably the only country whose name was an act of fraud. The murderous 10th century Viking better known as Erik the Red who was exiled from his native Iceland for "some killings" had a great deal invested in attracting settlers to his western discovery, and figured that the name Grønland would do just that. While his ploy may have worked, the early Norse settlement in Greenland never got off to a good start and failed spectacularly in the end. Perhaps a more honest name would have helped.