Rob Ford vs. Kevin Donovan: Who Snitched?

Dear readers: I expected some negative fallout from this post and of course I’m getting it. I’d like to make one thing clear: when it comes to rehab, addicts and alcoholics are free to talk about their own recovery. What I object to is the tattling nature of what the Toronto Star has done by speaking to others in Ford’s rehab facility. Every patient needs privacy, not just the mayor, and this sort of reporting puts everyone at risk. 

Kevin Donovan, an investigative journalist with the Toronto Star, has angered many of us who monitor healthcare in Canada. At issue is the privacy of Rob Ford’s stay at GreeneStone, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility based in the Muskokas. Here’s how Donovan’s article begins:

Kevin Donovan, master sleuth?
Kevin Donovan, master sleuth or bumbling naif?

Mayor Rob Ford pushed and scuffled with fellow rehab residents and was so verbally abusive that he was kicked out of his group therapy program, according to people who have knowledge of his two month stay at GreeneStone. These accounts of what one person referred to as “destructive behaviour” stands in stark contrast to Ford’s recent public statements that he…takes his recovery seriously. “Ford broke things, got into fights with other residents…[he] stopped people from sharing their stories, which is key to a successful rehab experience,” said another source. “Other residents felt intimidated. They felt he was a bully. He was always saying he did not belong there.”

Donovan goes on to describe his sources:

For this story, the Star has obtained accounts of Ford’s time in rehab from three people with knowledge of his time there, including a fellow patient, and from others, including a staffer, who provided accounts through an intermediary. Due to concerns over publicly breaching the confidentiality of the treatment facility, the sources asked that their names not be published.

Mayor Ford has been an ongoing target of a Toronto media unhappy with his conservative politics. However, as the entire English-speaking world now knows, Torontonians have other reasons for concern: his downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse is well-documented thanks to his carelessness, the ubiquity of smartphones and a media willing to pay for scandalous videos. That Ford has been his own worst enemy is not in dispute. Neither is the fact that the Toronto Star, as evidenced above, has pushed past acceptable boundaries and violated his and his family’s privacy.

My mother was turned down at a local eldercare clinic because of a privacy violation we experienced.
My disabled and stroke-afflicted mother was dropped by a local eldercare clinic because of a privacy violation made by an Ontario surgeon. These incidents are far more common than most Canadians realize.

When it comes to health records, violations like it can be deadly. In my family’s case, my stroke-afflicted mother was put at risk by the words of the surgeon who had amputated her leg. In her discharge summary — the document that summarizes a patient’s stay in hospital — I, like Ford, was described as abusive. This was in reference to words I exchanged with the surgeon when I discovered he’d falsified a report. Of course that context was not described in the summary, so when subsequent doctors read about our disagreement, my mother was turned away from their offices with vague excuses. Our difficulties became particularly acute when a dedicated eldercare clinic, which provides transport for the disabled, precipitously dropped my mother as a patient. When our rattled social worker tried to investigate, she was stonewalled. Abuse, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.

To read more about my family’s experience, click here.

Rob Ford may very well have behaved badly at GreeneStone. The missing piece of the puzzle, however, is the context. Having volunteered at a rehab, I know patients are often volatile and staff are trained to deal with them accordingly. It’s quite likely that Ford wasn’t alone in behaving badly, if indeed he behaved badly at all. Taking the word of other patients is a risky affair and Donovan’s doing so is a sign of his naivete when it comes to the world of addiction and recovery.

Moreover, he implies that one GreeneStone owner, Shawn Leon, has a questionable background. Although Leon says he does not have a history of addiction, many rehab workers are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, some of whom do have criminal pasts. However, when we consider that the majority of prison inmates in Canada are there for crimes committed because of drugs or alcohol, these troubled pasts make sense. Some of the most dedicated counsellors I’ve met through my volunteer work have spent time in jail. Take away the substances and what you’re left with, most of the time, are damaged but eminently decent human beings who have learned hard lessons. Donovan’s colouration of facts is misleading and nothing he reports counts as news for those of us familiar with addiction.

So I wrote to GreeneStone to ask them who spoke to the media. Here is our correspondence:

I’m wondering if the person who shared private information about
Mayor Rob Ford is going to remain on your payroll? The Toronto Star’s coverage, by
Kevin Donovan, is very troubling. I’d like to know if anything will be done
about the people who broke his anonymity.

Their response:

Thank you for your email. GreeneStone takes patient care and
confidentiality very seriously. As an organization we take great strides to
protect patient confidentiality and have never spoken to the media about any
of our patients.

I believe the staff at GreeneStone when they say they take confidentiality seriously. They wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t. So who snitched? And why do Donovan and the Toronto Star believe that other patients are more reliable than Ford? Isn’t it possible that the patient Donovan spoke to simply dislikes Ford and is seizing the opportunity to do something about it? And what about the future? This breach of privacy makes the possibility of any subsequent rehabs, which the mayor may need, exceedingly difficult: what institution will go up against the Toronto Star and their willingness to pay and plant informants? How many high risk patients, who fear exposure, will leave and not get the help they need?

Donovan’s errors in judgement are a genuine tragedy for the Fords and their children. When it comes to rehab, it’s a time honoured tradition that the famous are granted space and time to deal with their addictions. Denying them their privacy  — which the Toronto Star has done here — sets dangerous precedents for us all.


The Twelve Steps of Rob Ford: Will he make it? To read more click here. 

Our healthcare system is already unfair to some people. To read more click here.

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Our Panopticon Media: Snowden and Ford

media, snowden, ford

The Media, Snowden and Ford: I am a freelance writer based in Montreal. This article is about Edward Snowden and Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford. I’m concerned about our mainstream media’s attacks on the mayor and his family: are reporters reporting news or trying to make it?  

Close the blinds. I’d like to talk to you about privacy.

If you’ve ever had yours violated, you’ll know the feeling. The warm flush of exposure, like a Panopticon prisoner’s, settles in and you internalize the presence of a stern or threatening power. It happened to me when I was mischaracterized by a surgeon who had operated on my mother. Two paragraphs in her hospital record impacted my life and hers in ways I could not have predicted: angry that I had discovered a false report, the surgeon warned other doctors about me, making the search for medical after-care difficult.

media, snowden, ford
Bentham’s hypothetical Panopticon: A Prison of constant surveillance that was never built

That man’s words were more effective than any cattle-prod could have been. I became fearful, stopped complaining and, for a time, remained silent when further problems occurred. This is how privacy violations work.

So my concern over the narrative being woven about Rob Ford – a position that has exposed me to considerable abuse – is based more broadly upon my concerns about privacy. Ubiquitous smartphones are changing the way we communicate. Their video capabilities, I would argue, are changing the way we behave. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure.


The rags to riches narrative is deeply embedded in our North American psyche: with hard work and a bit of luck, upward mobility can be achieved in a generation or two. It makes sense then that the Cinderella fairytale, in all its variations, is sold to us repeatedly by an entertainment industry that knows us well.

In real life, however, this narrative works differently. When boosted by technology, it can morph into an exaggerated version of itself, a version that requires a hero and a villain, a combination that endangers us all. Teenage sexting incidents, and the suicides they have caused, are harbingers of the dangers ahead: like 17th century stockades, public shaming is becoming the punishment of choice for those who consider themselves civilized. 

media, snowden, ford
Anne Robinson and her daughter Emma Wilson

Why is this important? There are many among us who would make great politicians, but having our lives closely scrutinized, by adrenaline junkies who are also reporters, keeps us from it. The melee around Ford is just one instance of reporters seeking to create their own Cinderella moment, a moment when they can best their fellow reporters (their stepsisters), out a bad politician (their evil stepmother), and marry a prince (garner princely attention and make their careers). That the focus of their story may be an individual’s personal turmoil makes no difference.

Even former journalists have become targets. Jane Purves, the Nova Scotia MP who beat a youthful addiction to heroin, went public on the eve of being outed by a media that conveniently ignored her past while she was one of their own, a reporter and managing editor of the Halifax Chronicle Herald. Similarly, Anne Robinson, of The Weakest Link fame, turned out an autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, after having a long career as a broadcast journalist in the U.K. Once she appeared on American television, she too was pushed to the brink of exposure and pre-empted it by writing frankly (and quickly) about her alcoholism. One reason she wrote the book, she says, was to limit any further harm to her daughter.


There’s an obvious double standard here. Those in the media get a free pass when it comes to addiction, but the addictions of public officials, particularly those whose behaviour or politics are provocative, are considered fair game. Robyn Doolittle, the young reporter who wrote Crazy Town, The Rob Ford Story, is dining out on the media attention she’s getting, building her career not only on Ford’s misbehaviour, but also on the lack of privacy she’s now bestowed on his loved ones. Her inclusion of an unverified tape of Ford’s wife, which in most circumstances would raise ethical alarms, is being quietly accepted as verified, a fact that would have been inconvenient had Ford been a liberal and a well-behaved one to boot.

Read my review of Crazy Town here.

media, snowden, ford
Jane Purves, the former journalist turned MP

The media’s other omissions are curious too. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, which are unfolding at the same time, are disturbing because the agency’s spy power is far greater than most security experts thought. Governments of countries friendly to the U.S. were outraged by its violations and Snowden’s prediction, that young people being born today will not experience privacy, now seems plausible. So while Netflix suggestions and Facebook posts seem innocuous to us now, Zeynep Tufekci, a social media expert, believes surveillance techniques of the future, which will affect us all, will penetrate deeper and be harder to detect:

Internet technology lets us peel away layers of divisions and distractions and interact with one another, human to human. At the same time, the powerful are looking at those very interactions, and using them to figure out how to make us more compliant. That’s why surveillance, in the service of seduction, may turn out to be more powerful and scary than the nightmares of Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

How does this apply to us here and now? Although Canadian politicians are still relatively accessible, the situation is different in the U.S. Barack Obama, like most presidents, has two narratives vying for control: he is a hero to some and a villain to others. At the moment he is mostly popular, however, because he is a brilliant orator and has gifted writers preparing his speeches. These are speeches that sound great, say little and obfuscate some troubling realities.

media, snowden, ford
Pierre Elliott Trudeau

The obfuscation is both subtle and effective and creates a considerable distance between the hero and villain narratives. While Snowden’s disclosures hint at a vast network of surveillance, Obama himself seems to be standing a football-field’s length away from the epicenter of the crisis. That’s because his personal story — the story of the first black president — is a Cinderella tale with the heft and power to win almost any public relations fight. By following the media outpouring on the NSA, one senses, even now, that Obama will not be held accountable by history. And that’s because along with his “heroic” background, his PR people and image controllers are doing their jobs and doing them well.

This is not a system we want.

By contrast Rob Ford seems a difficult and combustible creature. His antics and appetites have provided late night comics with a lot of material and rightly so. But here’s what I think: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have had Robyn Doolittle on their shows, can laugh at the mayor all they want: I’d rather have a politician with a vast network of flaws instead of a vast network of surveilling spybots. I’d rather have a politician who over-imbibes, gets caught and admits he was in a drunken stupor, than a slippery politician who evades responsibility with a consistent patter of empty rhetoric. I’d rather have a real human being, however awkward and embarrassing, instead of a haloed demagogue who holds court for appearances only.


We have a good thing going in Canada: we have a relatively transparent system that doesn’t allow our leaders to hide much to begin with. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of them. We are also tolerant of differences: we have had charismatic politicians like the pirrouetting Trudeau, who could be quirky and angry, delightful and sullen. When his marriage broke up in a very public way, even his enemies mourned along with him. When his wife, many years later, talked openly about her mental illness, we listened and forgave her. Now her son Justin may be our next prime minister. The Trudeaus are not a perfect family — they are certainly not the Obamas — but we Canadians are hardy enough to withstand those imperfections.

Our nation’s media needs to remember that and to stop delighting in the frailties of others, especially when those others are wives and children. Celebrating a book like Crazy Town tells me our politics are inching towards the cynical sort that produces wacky critics like Stewart and Colbert, the kind that also produces first families like the impossibly airbrushed Obamas.

Moreover, if we agree with the violation of the Ford family’s privacy, how can we claim both sides of the argument and defend our own? The sheer volume of the attacks on the mayor, however much he may deserve them, are becoming troublesome because they are shading into attacks on the democratic system that elected him and the system that protects our rights too. The principle of respecting others’ privacy is what’s at stake here, not whether we like or dislike the politician being tested by it.

Ford and his wife Renata
Ford and his wife Renata

In the interest of curbing the political relativism, I would suggest calling a moratorium on all attacks of the personal sort, but something tells me our nation’s media, and the reporters and editors who run it, would be loathe to comply, especially with subjects as worthy as Snowden and Ford. It’s clear they relish being our unofficial policemen, so I doubt that the more balanced kind of reporting seen in France, where personal lives remain personal, will become a reality here.

It’s too bad because our nation’s leadership, under our media’s jaundiced gaze, is becoming that much poorer for it.


Related: Our Panopticon Media: Snowden and Ford and The Shakespeare in Rob Ford

If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously. 

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Why we all need Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Why we all need Edward Snowden: In this post, I describe how my family’s information was used inappropriately by healthcare professionals in Canada. I look at this in the context of Edward Snowden’s revelations and other intrusive data mining. This is a longread at 2,500 words.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman commented on the NSA’s PRISM program:

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

Friedman’s comments represent one side of a polarized debate: the revelation of NSA information-gathering has triggered arguments about the rights of individuals, Americans and others, versus the rights of the U.S. government when it comes to protecting its citizens. Despite outcries from privacy advocates, the PRISM program now seems precociously standard when it comes to Homeland Security.

While the U.K. is known as a CCTV state, the U.S. has skipped that cruder technology and like China is now surveilling from within. Dissenters question how deeply the government needs to penetrate their lives because, unlike Friedman, they don’t believe authorities will get warrants to look at gathered material. It appears they’re right: If Edward Snowden is proof of anything, it’s that there are few if any controls.

The implications of Friedman’s words are obvious. Normal citizens living blameless lives have nothing to worry about. Suspicious patterns are what interest the American government, not screaming matches between divorcing spouses. However, if one parses Friedman’s words, it’s not hard to see the weakness of his argument. When he says he will “reluctantly, very reluctantly” trade off his privacy for security, his words suggest Americans actually have a choice. He also seems confident that private information won’t fall into the hands of others, outside the U.S. government, who wish to exploit it. He categorically ignores the reality of income inequality and the threat it poses to his government’s autonomy. The truth is that the concentration of wealth has created a global and de facto oligarchy, one where those with money, influence and powerful computers can bypass judges and warrants to mine and manipulate whatever data they want. Simply put: the very rich, as a group, have more power than most governments.

Seinfeld, Elaine and New York Doctors

The cast of Seinfeld

A few years ago, an episode of Seinfeld covered a topic that was funny but substantive in its own way. Elaine, Seinfeld’s female foil, was having a doctor problem. She’d with quibbled with one and earned herself a bad reputation. When other doctors turned her away, she attempted, with her trademark insensitivity, to find out what they were saying. The script handled the conflict deftly: the real comedy lay in the neurosis of all navel-gazing New Yorkers. When it came to over-reacting, Elaine and her doctors were caught in a tie for last.

I remember watching the episode and wondering if a situation like it could happen in Canada, a country where doctors are tightly networked by government-run healthcare. At the time it was a theoretical proposition only; I’d never upset a doctor badly enough to find out. That changed in 2008 when my mother had a stroke in an Ontario hospital.

In brief, my mother’s stroke went undiagnosed and untreated despite my best efforts. The window of opportunity, when its effects could have been mitigated, came and went when nurses rebuffed my concerns, concerns repeated to them over the course of several hours. My contention that my mother’s consciousness had altered was dismissed because she was on morphine for a gangrenous toe. I was told it was the drug’s effects I was witnessing and that an alert to the hospitalist on duty was not in order. The stroke eventually took hold and she was left profoundly paralyzed on her left side.

Other calamities followed and the nadir of that experience occurred when I discovered my mother’s surgeon had falsified a report. After her gangrenous foot had been amputated, we were told a week would be needed before doctors could determine if the gangrene had been successfully treated. Our fear was that it would return to the site of her amputation.

Thomas Friedman

It was a tense few days, as anyone who has ever waited for results can appreciate. When we were told to wait for her surgeon – who was slated to give us his verdict – we stationed ourselves in her hospital room. Three hours passed and nothing. Through the doorway we saw him making his rounds, but he didn’t attend my mother. Eventually I went to the nurses’ station and was told he’d left for the day. However, I was also told he’d completed my mother’s examination and she’d been given the all clear. To prove it, I was presented with her chart and shown his written entry. It was surprising because neither myself nor my mother’s partner had left the room between 4 and 7 PM; nonetheless, the surgeon reported he had examined my mother at 6 PM. When I asked the nurses how this could be, what followed was an interrogation worthy of Law and Order. Did we leave to use the restroom? No. Are you sure? Yes. Both of you? Yes. Did you leave to use the phone? No. Are you sure? Yes. Did you fall asleep? No. Are you sure? Yes.

So when I saw the surgeon the next day, and then overheard him joke about me, I let rip with a choice expletive. Little did I know that that outburst would cause me a world of grief, months later and in another province.

DNA and Electronic Medical Records

Back in the 1990s, when advances in genetics were changing landscapes in healthcare and policing, initiatives were also underway to transfer medical information from paper to electronic records. In 2010, the Ontario provincial government commissioned the following 30-second PSA.

As with many recent technologies, the proposed introduction of e-records raised concerns over the security of the information stored in them. The fear was that the private sector, and in particular the insurance industry, could use this information to discriminate on the basis of indicative pre-conditions and genetic guesses. While concern was greater in the U.S., which depends upon private insurers and HMOs to fund and provide care, there were concerns in Canada too. Information about one’s health could be used to discriminate in many ways: jobs, credit and even one’s marriage prospects could be affected.

The pursuit of happiness, considered a birthright in countries like Canada and the U.S., stood to be undermined by easy access to individuals’ medical histories. EMR (Electronic Medical Records) brought forth a host of ethical issues similar to euthanasia debates, currently ongoing in many countries, over the rights individuals have when it comes to managing that other personal resource, namely their lives. That debate offers a useful and informative comparison: the onslaught of the “grey tsunami” on government-funded healthcare systems is driving much global apprehension. Many countries, Canada included, are facing economic hardship because of healthcare expenses associated with ageing populations. So in this charged economic atmosphere, with all its fears and uncertainties, the over-valuing of those resources which can produce value (the employed) and the devaluing of those which cannot (the retired) is not so surprising. These days market forces are a bit like seismic shocks — their vibrations are being felt everywhere.

A Bad Outcome

snowdenAfter I swore at the surgeon, my mother and I had an extraordinary streak of bad luck when it came to managing her care. I brought her to Montréal to live with me until I could place her in a nursing home. She needed round the clock support and had to be monitored closely because of her blood pressure, which fluctuated dangerously. I cashed in her investments to pay for a live-in caregiver and, set about, immediately upon her arrival, finding specialists who could help me manage. Even with a sabbatical, it was gruelling work.

So imagine my surprise when we started being refused by doctors. In the first few months it happened three times; in two of those instances, the refusals were delivered outside of normal channels. That is, we were refused after initial appointments and in ways that did not follow protocol. It was only after the third refusal that, like Elaine, I started to wonder and worry.

The mystery wasn’t solved until a clerk, who had seen my mother and was clearly moved by our difficulties, called me back after yet another postponed appointment. He admitted he thought the specialist he worked for was avoiding us and then suggested my reputation may have been sullied by something written in my mother’s medical records. He also implied that phone calls had been made and received that to him seemed related to us. After hearing this, I found the offending paperwork and started approaching clinics with it in hand. I gave it to doctors straightaway, told them what they would find and then added that they could hear my side of the story if they were interested. It was a bold move, but also enough to change our luck.

I’m telling this story because I was unprepared for the fallout from my conflict with the surgeon. It meant that instead of having access to a devoted elder-care clinic and their gerontologist, we were forced to use our local emergency room. ER wait times at hospitals in Montreal can be anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. Obviously, this created hardships for my mother.

Do we need Edward Snowden?

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng

While it’s no fun to live in a state of constant vigilance and suspicion, putting blind trust in our authorities isn’t wise either. After the difficulties I had with the Ontario and Québec healthcare systems, I started this website. Although I suspected malfeasance, beyond tepid evidence provided by that one clerk — that a document had occasioned phone calls and possibly refusals — I could not prove anything substantive. In the end, the problem was left for me to deduce, after myriad disappointments and a lot of wasted time. Like many people in my position, I was also reluctant to share my suspicions with friends, lest I appear unreasonable and paranoid. My sense of isolation, already acute at times, only grew.

What would Trudeau Do? 

And so imagine this: you apply for a mortgage, but are given excuses or offered unsustainable interest rates. You apply for health, home or car insurance and similar things happen. You aren’t being denied that mortgage or insurance, but for reasons unclear to you, your rates are higher and less amenable than rates offered to your brother or your neighbour or your friends. This mist of ill-fortune follows you around, and because you are unable to locate its source, your complaints and suspicions turn inward and affect your relationships with the people supporting you. After trying and failing, they withdraw. If they are close supporters, they may move out, divorce you and take your children. If they are less close, they may stop returning your calls, perhaps distance themselves in public. You slide out of the middle class and into a set of circumstances your background and education did not prepare you for. And why is this happening? Somewhere along the line, some information, possibly pertaining to your health or your earning potential or your credit management, has been crunched in a way that is unfavourable to you. Perhaps you made a comment online, offending someone with the power to affect your life, someone you don’t even know.

MOOCs and data mining

Recently, I have spent a lot of time writing about MOOCs (massive open online courses). My concern is that in their closed and for-profit incarnations they are an inferior form of education delivery, especially when it comes to the less advantaged students they seem destined for. I also fear that data mined from them can be used in the ways I’ve just described.

Daphne Koller, in her TED talk about MOOCs, explained how data gathered by weekly online assignments revealed how students completed their work. A graph showed that most logged on at the last minute to do assignments, without much online engagement earlier in the weekly interval. That information tells us, she says laughingly, that students like to procrastinate. Well, yes. It also tells us that Coursera is observing this phenomenon and that they likely have the names of students doing it. My question is, would banks and other lending organizations be able to purchase that information? And would Coursera inform their students?

snowdenIn the early 1990s, I took part in the development of my province’s English exit test. The test goes like this: students are given three texts of about 2000 words each. They must choose one and write an analysis of 750 words. Their analysis is then graded on various elements measured at various levels of competency. Within categories of content, organization and mechanics, for example, are further subcategories which are measured too. Initially the Québec government stated the test would be pass-fail only and had been instituted, primarily, to make sure CEGEP professors were doing their jobs.

Almost 20 years on, the test has gone from pass-fail to a letter grade. That grade is now part of each student’s final transcript and is used by universities to decide admissions. In the event of a very tight race, universities can request even more finely-tuned data. The test evolved into this latest and more complex version because university admissions boards said they needed more variables to make accurate and subtle calculations when it came to admitting students. That may be true, but as most of us working in education know, that pattern of evolution is common. A reform is presented as beneficial for students, then morphs into something that’s beneficial for administrators. The locus of power shifts, in other words, away from students and towards those making decisions about them.

We need to keep this pattern in mind when people like Daphne Koller are up on the TED stage giggling about students and procrastination. Twenty years down the road, and with data-mining the norm, her observations might not be so funny. And that’s also why we need the blogosphere, critics and people like Edward Snowden. His actions make it easier for the rest of us to tell the truth too.


Related Why we all Edward Snowden and Our Panopticon World: Snowden and Ford

irene ogrizek, cheeky canadianIf you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.

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Globalization, Education and the Case of the Missing Toilets

Chrystia Freeland
Chrystia Freeland

Promoters of MOOCs want us to believe that educational technology is fair, apolitical and will benefit everyone.

I’ll be using Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else to frame my argument. Freeland is a Canadian who hails from Peace River, Alberta. She currently lives in New York and is the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital. Before that, she was US managing editor of the Financial Times.

The Plutocrats: Who Are They?

According to Freeland, globalization has an adjunct social cost: it means we are living in an increasingly centralized world, one where more eyes, admiration and resources are being turned toward actors on a global stage. The rock-star template most of us remember from adolescence is morphing into an intergenerational and collective appreciation for those in any stratosphere, particularly those who command our attention with their wealth, glamour or business acumen.

So someone like Bono is not just a rock-star; he’s a player in that global theatre, a once-struggling musician who now rubs shoulders not only with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, but also with those who attend conferences like TED and Davos. The internet is our virtual seat in their venue, allowing millions of us to follow their stories and get caught up in the frenzy too. It’s a contagion of anxiety similar to the one Freeland believes has leaders of countries like the U.S and England taking financial risks to dominate, even when it means imperiling the health of their respective economies. Her ironic take on this competition — one that spawned years of dodgy derivatives trading in the US — is noteworthy: she quite rightly sees these players as engaging in a reckless and unnecessary “race to the bottom.”

(Al Gore posted an excellent six minute video explaining income inequality: )

The Centralizing of Resources

Mrs. Billington
Mrs. Billington

The gathering storm over the centralizing of resources is being enacted in many aspects of life. Last week I wrote about the dire predictions made by Bruce Guile and David Teece, two self-styled education specialists out of Silicon Valley. Their ideas about globalization make the loss of brick and mortar universities seem inevitable, particularly given the rise of online learning. The premise is that information can be taught more efficiently via MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and so more cost-intensive forms of learning will eventually be phased out.

Following the history of technological change in other industries, educational services will likely be unbundled and rebundled in new forms. Many students from around the world will want to take instruction from the “best” statistics professor at Caltech, the best nuclear engineer at MIT, the best Shakespeare professor at Cambridge, and the best economist at the University of California, Berkeley. 

In the present reality of income inequality, Guile and Teece’s predictions have got some scholars worried: as with small booksellers and mom-and-pop businesses, second-tier institutions stand to lose the most as they struggle to compete with free online education. Economies of scale, so useful for bringing us cheap goods from China, will work against regional and specialist institutions like community colleges and private universities. In the end, the centralization of intellectual resources may look a lot like Walmart-ization, leaving some experts, like Michael A. Cusumano from MIT, predicting we’ll be left with “a few large, well-off survivors and a wasteland of casualties.”

The Success of Mrs. Billington: the First Global Rock-star?

So how does the advent of big-box education compare to the rise of the super-rich? In Freeland’s view, income inequality has several causes, but I’ll start by summarizing two: scalability and globalization. She gives the example of Mrs. Billington, a 16th and 17th century operatic singer who commanded an extraordinary fee for performing.

Her talent and her celebrity and the international demand for her performances gave her pricing power. In 1801, when Mrs. Billington returned to Britain after seven years in Italy, the managers of both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, London’s two most prestigious opera houses, fought a bidding war for her voice…Her total income that year was believed to exceed £10,000.

walmartBillington appears to have been an excellent negotiator, especially since some of her critics thought her business acumen was better than her singing. More importantly, however, her rising star coincided with the industrial revolution, an economic tide that increased “the prices top talent could command” and pushed down “the relative wages of many of the artisans and professionals lower down the ladder.” In terms of the pooling of money, more was allocated to the best in their fields — like Billington — leaving less for those less talented or displaced by machinery.

Globalization played a role in this apportionment as well: Billington cultivated an international audience. She started in England, went to Ireland, and, with the help of friends in high places, traveled to Italy, the world’s most prestigious market for music at the time. An international reputation increased her earning power, a trend we see with the Bonos and Gagas of today. However, one thing they have that she did not was the ability to scale her earnings. Had she been able to record her voice, she would have reached an even wider audience and not been dependent solely on live performances. She may have been a sensation, but she wasn’t one in the widespread way superstars are today. She simply didn’t have the means to multiply the earning power of her performances.

Globalization, Education and the Academic Star System

images (22)When it comes to education, Guile and Teece describe a similar “star-making” effect: they predict the rise of academic superstars, and suggest that anyone with a computer and an internet connection will be able to “study Shakespeare from the best professor at Cambridge.” The thinking, certainly manifest in Coursera’s wooing of highly recognized institutions, is that their online students will only want the best and that this desire will be what shapes the future of the academic world. In their minds, MOOCs are poised to become a force that will determine, and lionize, only the “best.”

What they misunderstand, of course, is that it takes more than a village to produce a great arts professor, and, in fact, there are a lot of great arts professors at a lot of institutions. And that’s the way it’s meant to be. Having a cacophony of voices, as opposed to just one, is vital to the system. After all, academic arguments and debates are what generate that staple of the academic industry: information. Losing that crowd means losing a lot.

So where does this belief about academic stars come from? Like the centralizing effect of globalization, the star system inherent in the American academic world is largely a construct, particularly in terms of its economics and evolution. As with a lot of American inventions, that system has already evolved into something larger than life: academic celebrities won’t be made because they already exist, as do the very expensive Ivy League universities they teach at. The point is, judging an entire system of higher education on the basis of eight of its superstar institutions is misguided: they are outliers in an otherwise broad and relatively stable system.

So maybe we shouldn’t be placing obituaries for non-Ivy League colleges and universities just yet; maybe we should be looking at the individuals who want to write them.

Outhouses and Important Data

images (21)But first, a little story about outhouses. The Harvard Business Review recently published an article by one Craig Hammer, “Open Data Has Little Value If People Can’t Use It.” It tells the story of Irene Choge, a Kenyan reporter who attended a “Data Journalism Bootcamp” in Nairobi convened by the World Bank Institute and the African Media Initiative. That meant she attended an intensive course where she learned how to evaluate data. Here is her story:

At the time, Choge was searching for answers as to why primary school students’ grades were at a record low in two particular Kenyan counties — a trend that wasn’t reflected in the rest of the country. Using data interrogation skills she acquired during the training, she began to explore Kenya’s Open Data platform, analyzing student grades per primary school. She then examined county-level expenditures on education infrastructure — specifically, on the number of toilets per primary school. Then she scrutinized disease levels among primary school students…[and found] funding allocated for children’s toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation…This increased their risk of contracting cholera, giardiasis, hepatitis, and rotavirus, and accounted for low attendance, in particular among girls, who also had no facilities during their menstruation cycles. The end result: poor student performance on exams.

I had to smile at an incongruity here. Having grown up on a farm with an outhouse (we had indoor plumbing too), I know for a fact it’s not hard to tell when an outhouse has to be, um, treated. So it strikes me that surely the teachers in the affected schools had some idea that the lack of facilities was a problem? Surely they knew their high absence rates were due to illnesses (as opposed to the necessity for child labour)?

The Over-Cognitive Approach?

images (23)As an Arts and Humanities person, my first approach would have been to visit the schools and to talk to the teachers, students and administrators. I would ask them what they thought was wrong. And I’m guessing I would have collected similar data that, significantly, would have also given a voice to everyone affected. In other words, I would pursue a more inclusive model of research, one based on the voices of the individuals I was trying to help.

The case of the missing toilets represents an over-reliance on statistical data and it’s a trend that reaches all the way up to the White House. It smacks of something I call an intimacy deficit — a prioritizing of data over individuals — and is a flaw Freeland believes both Obama and Romney suffered from during their campaigns. In her opinion, they struggled “to connect with the grassroots of their parties, coming across as cold and robotic.” Indeed, the bulk of Obama’s support came from Wall Street and Silicon Valley:

The cognitive approach is one reason [why] Obama attracted so much support, especially among the younger generation, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley…Obama is a data-driven technocrat, and so are the traders and the Internet entrepreneurs…The super-geeks don’t just rule Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Beijing. They are in charge in Washington too–no matter which party wins.

The epistemology of the current US administration is telling and is so because it is the same administration that approved massive bank bailouts. To no one’s surprise, the bailouts were hugely unpopular: for average Americans, they flew in the face of a democracy they believed would be supple enough to respond to the various economic failures wrought on them. It wasn’t and as a result, Obama’s re-election was uncertain for much of his campaign and movements like the various Occupy ones made sure the public’s disdain for egotistical bankers was aired.

Cognitive Dissonance: MOOCs and Their Role in “Free” Education

Chimamanda Adichie
Chimamanda Adichie

So this brings me back to the start of the discussion: when it comes to education, there’s a link between the threat posed by MOOCs and globalization and its problems. And it’s the language being used to describe this links that reveal it. For example, the possibilities MOOCs represent have clearly captured the imagination of those who say they want to deliver affordable education. They may be saying it, but in what is clearly a case of cognitive dissonance, they are using the language and motifs of plutocracy to do so.

Dissenters, who seem marginalized at the moment, fear a centralized system of education may have the same effect big box stores have had on some North American communities. Smaller retailers are forced to close and the more personalized, region-specific help they offer often disappears with them. That classroom debate students have over poetry may instead turn into less civilized flaming on an unmoderated e-list. For anyone who posts on the internet regularly, it’s not hard to imagine.

However, there are antidotes to thinking shaped by the anxiety of centralization and globalization, some of which I’ll be tackling in coming articles. For now, I’m going to close with a video from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie. She seems to be in tune with this issue too. Here’s her talk on the danger of the single story.

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niiiii (2)Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked as a flight attendant, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (led by Ed Broadbent). 

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Transparency on the Internet: Do I really want to know?

I’m using a story from Canadian author Alice Munro an analogy for open data. I spend the first few paragraphs discussing it — then, on to open data.

In Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” Johanna Perry, a homely housekeeper, lands the delectable but down-and-out Ken Boudreau:

hateship-friendship-courtship-loveship-marriage-by-alice-mun-7He had figured out by now who this woman was. She had said she came to bring him his furniture, though he hadn’t asked her or anybody to do that – hadn’t asked for the furniture at all, just the money. He should know her name, but he couldn’t remember it. That was why he opened her purse, which was on the floor of the hall beside her suitcase. There was a name tag sewn into the lining.

A couple of weeks ago Johanna had been able to transfer the whole of her inheritance from Mrs. Willets into her bank account…The sum was not dazzling, but it was impressive. It gave her substance. In Ken Boudreau’s mind, it added a sleek upholstery to the name Johanna Perry.

“Hateship, Friendship” is a variation on the Cinderella story. The persecuted heroine is Johanna and she is set up for humiliation by two young girls, one of whom is under her care. They intercept a heart-breaking letter she has written to her putative lover Ken, telling him about her harrowing life. The girls rightly interpret it as a play for his emotions and like evil stepsisters decide to trick her. They concoct a series of love letters, ostensibly from Ken, and these eventually prompt Johanna to leave Ontario and to find him in Gydnia, Saskatechewan, a forsaken tumbleweed town.

The concept of superior knowledge, also known as dramatic irony, is a frequent plot device used in literature, particularly in theatre. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as:

a plot device in which the audience’s or reader’s knowledge of events or individuals surpasses that of the characters. The words and actions of the characters therefore take on a different meaning for the audience or reader than they have for the play’s characters. This may happen when, for example, a character reacts in an inappropriate or foolish way or when a character lacks self-awareness and thus acts under false assumption.

Alice Munro
Alice Munro

Dramatic irony is deployed in Munro’s story with equal parts pleasure and misgiving. We know that Johanna is acting on a false assumption when she travels across the country to find Ken. Having only met her once, he barely remembers her. However, when she first arrives, he is in a seedy hotel too sick with flu to wonder at her sudden appearance. While Johanna is busy, he sees an opportunity to jog his memory and goes into her purse looking for ID. Discovering her net worth in the process, he decides not to question the windfall she represents and gratefully submits to her ministrations.

Like onlookers to Cinderella’s triumph, we cheer for Johanna: she richly deserves her prince. Like worried friends, however, we also hope Ken’s motive for marrying her is never revealed. Years later, one of the young pranksters hears of the birth of Johanna and Ken’s son and fervently wishes to distance herself from that younger, more malicious version of herself. Nevertheless, she is stuck with the knowledge – and the dismay — that her interference has brought forth greater consequences than she counted on. As the story closes, she is at her kitchen table doing homework, translating a line from Latin: Tu ne quaesieris, scire negas, quem mihi, quem tibi — You must not ask; it is forbidden for us to know.

Issues around transparency and the ownership of knowledge are particularly complex these days. I used the example of Munro’s story because Johanna and Ken’s mutual windfalls could only happen in the context of her ignorance and his discretion. Their coupling is extraordinary, but that haphazard way fate has of surprising us is not. The Latin admonition at the end of the story is key here: What exactly are we meant to know?

The fight over information and in particular online information, is being fought in different contexts with different players, all of whom feel they have a moral stake in the outcome. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. First, there are those who believe in radical transparency (or open data) when it comes to government and business and to some extent individuals. These are people who believe all creative endeavours should be open-source, meaning texts, movies and music should be available to the public for free on the internet. Aaron Swartz’s liberation of JSTOR articles is an example of this way of thinking. 
  2. Secondly, there are those who envision a more mixed world, where matters of the public good are transparent and free, but that creators of texts, movies and music can control their work or in some way be compensated. One idea held by this middle-of-the-road group is the institution of a communal fee, similar to taxes, which would support creative endeavours. Larry Lessig’s work with the Creative Commons represents a step in this direction.
  3. Lastly, there are those who like the status quo and don’t feel we need more transparency. The belief here is that a lower level of transparency serves the interests of private industries and individuals best. Creators would be paid for their work and the distribution of it would be limited to those who have purchased it. Not surprisingly, members of the first group, the open-sourcers, tend to view this members of this last group, the closed sourcers, with suspicion. From their perspective, the latter tend to be oppressive über-capitalists or shady politicians. Countries like China and Iran, with their relatively closed internet systems, belong in this group too. 

319578-always_lie_lying_nowThis is where things get complicated. This crowd of three groups can be divided further, but we need to throw them all back into the pot and stir. Now let’s pour the contents into two diametrically opposed bowls. The first represents those who believe a radically transparent system can liberate us; the second represents those who feel we should protect our privacy at all costs. The latter are hacker privacy mavens (who distrust governments) and über-capitalists (who fear mob rule).

This is how we end up with activists who see no contradiction in supporting the openness of a Wikileaks organization while believing their own privacy is sacrosanct. At least half of the time, they stand alongside some capitalists and politicians who like mixing openness and privacy too, in the same ways but for different reasons. It raises the question: is this to be the decade of odd-bedfellows or the century of it?

If you’re still following, let’s substitute the word boundaries for the words division or divide. Because setting boundaries around some very important issues is what all these groups are fighting for. And they each want primacy: they want to be the ones drawing the lines. To sort out my own thoughts, I started looking at how I felt about transparency and privacy. And this is when my ideas about lying came in handy.

I’ve written extensively about my difficulties with the Canadian healthcare system, so I won’t reprise the story here. What I will say is that I was lied to on a number of occasions and perusing my mother’s hospital records after the fact told me the lying wasn’t restricted to the face to face variety. There were significant omissions in those records and I was mischaracterized by a doctor I had had words with. In the end, it was a mischaracterization that had larger implications: problems ensued with at least three subsequent doctors, problems I believe were directly attributable to the words written by the first.

Screen_Shot_2012-05-16_at_7.22.43_PMSo being followed around by a lie acting like thug prompted me to look at lying generally. I became far more conscious of my own lies and I attempted, with great resolve, to banish them from my social repertoire. This created real tension: being consistently truthful isn’t easy and it made me aware that my anger at the healthcare system felt slightly hypocritical at times. The official term for this competition of thoughts is polyphasia:

The concept of cognitive polyphasia refers to a state in which different kinds of knowledge, possessing different rationalities live side by side in the same individual or collective.

Of course, looking at dishonesty as a whole is very tricky since individuals lie so often, for so many reasons and in so many ways. It’s simply too unwieldy a category of behaviour to characterize easily. Despite that, I still think it’s important to weigh our own dishonesty when we consider ideas around transparency and privacy, especially those ideas we’d like others to respect. Asking ourselves why we lie is a good place to start. If we do this, and do it honestly, I believe the policies we create will be better for it.

Jennifer Epstein, of Cornell University Medical College, studied everyday deception and made what I believe are some very comforting observations:

…the portrayal of everyday lies as disruptive of social life and hurtful to the targets of the lies is in need of modification. In keeping with the perspective described by Goffman (1959) and other social interaction theorists, we think that many of the lies of everyday life are told to avoid tension and conflict and to minimize hurt feelings and ill-will (Lippard, 1988, Metts, 1989). We think that people lie frequently about their feelings, preferences, and opinions and that when they do so, they are far more likely to feign a positive appraisal than a negative one.

If most lies and deceptions are relatively inconsequential, as is likely the case, then how do we determine which are not? Enemies and apologists along the transparency/privacy divide are likely to disagree about the scope and intentionality of various deceptions. Enemies will argue that when a deception results in any harm, then it is too consequential to ignore. Apologists may argue that some deceptions are necessary to avoid either greater harm or harm in other arenas. So determining a deception’s intentionality and scope is necessary to make an accurate judgement. The problems, of course, are that most of us simply don’t have the time to make judgements and judgements that are weighed carefully are subjectively weighed much of the time.

Larry Lessig
Larry Lessig

Larry Lessig is an academic and activist for internet freedoms. He is also the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. In his essay, “Against Transparency,” he makes a pithy observation about how easy it is to mishandle information. He uses an anecdote by Peter Lewis that appeared in the New York Times. Lewis described a meeting between a middle-aged man and a young woman in a Manhattan hotel, and he narrated the meeting from the point-of-view of the security cameras which captured it digitally. Despite his neutral language, his interpretation suggested a romantic rendezvous. He used this narration to show how a meeting between himself and his adult daughter, based solely on a trail of digital images, could be misconstrued. Observing the dangers of these epistemological shortcuts, Lessig asserts that:

The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological…Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.

Two operative words in this excerpt are mature and exacerbate, and they lead me to a discussion of my own judgement calls when it comes to being truthful.

images (11)What lies do I tell? In a professional capacity, I often encourage students by positively enhancing my responses to their writing. In short, I am a nice teacher who avoids negative criticism. When I teach immigrant or francophone students (I teach in Montreal), I help them by allowing them to re-write essays. Although I worry about the inequities this might create, I know my one-on-one work with them — which is detailed and thorough — helps them learn English in ways that will serve them not only academically but socially as well.

I think of my mother taking free, government English courses after arriving in Canada and the difference between her life and my father’s. He was not given the same opportunities and ended up being one of those immigrants who never fully grasped the language. I saw first-hand the limits and frustrations this imposed on him.

And so I lie to them. I tell them it will get easier when I’m not sure it will. I encourage them by saying their ideas are good and by consciously enlarging my definition of good. In subtle and delicate ways, I inch their grades upwards so that they won’t fail or become demoralized. I see their anxiety and their weariness and sometimes their isolation and I don’t want to add to it. I want them to experience Canada (or English-speaking Canadians) as welcoming and I want them to know there are kind-hearted authorities willing to support them.

And this is where I have trouble with some of those folks Evgeny Morozov believes are “net-utopians,” those activists who believe radical transparency via the internet is a good thing. They remind me of those students who think they have a right to know the class average every time I hand back an assignment. The ones who narrow their eyes suspiciously when I say no. And I say no because spending time around young people has taught me that a bit of artful discretion, appropriately managed, can go a long way toward not destroying their spirits.

What I fear is that the radical transparentists aren’t seeing the therapeutic side of this kind of dishonesty. They don’t understand that full transparency could lead to the elimination of emotional bolt-holes, and, as a consequence, opportunities to save face might be eliminated too. And not all individuals are up to that. Think of Jacintha Saldanha, the British nurse pranked by the two Australian radio hosts pretending to be the royal family. What they thought was harmless fun ended in tragedy and The-Net-Delusion-How-Not-to-that was because the scale of Saldanha’s very public humiliation was unsustainable for her.

This tells us transparency isn’t a simple issue and it’s easy to march, blindly, into the land of unintended consequences. Saldanha’s experience is a cautionary tale — it warns us that we may end up being victims too.

I’m not sure what the answers are when it comes to the online transparency/privacy debate, and I suspect we’re in for a muddled few years before any solutions become clear. Partially it’s because our thinking about these issues needs to catch up to the technology. However, we can start the process by trying to understand the full implications of transparency; that starts when we take an honest look at how it would work in our own lives.


 niiiii (2)Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked as a flight attendant, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (led by Ed Broadbent). 

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Mock Heroism and the Theatre of Cunning

In this article, I take a look at heroism using recent events in Canadian healthcare and the IT world. More specifically, I write about my hospital experience, Aaron Swartz’s suicide and Hamed Al-Khabaz’ expulsion from Dawson College, in Montreal. All thoughts here are my own.

In Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, a young officer, Robert Ross, defies orders and releases horses and mules confined in a barn. It is WW1 and he is in France and being shelled by Germans. Releasing the animals is a way of saving them — the barn is an obvious target for enemy gunners.

Ross is with the CFA – the Canadian Field Artillery – and it’s his love of animals and justice that motivates him. It’s also his last act before deserting. Afterwards, he tears the lapels from his uniform and goes AWOL.

Days later Ross walks along train tracks and discovers a lone mare and her companion, a mixed-breed dog. When they lead him to a convoy of boxcars carrying horses bound for the front, Ross releases them too and travels north, leading them all to safety. When he passes a military encampment and a private tries to stop him, Ross shoots him in the face. He is not court-martialled, however. In the following standoff, he sustains burns so serious he is deemed unfit to be tried. He dies six years later, in England, of complications from those injuries. Having brought shame on his wealthy Toronto family, none save his father will ever visit his grave.

The point of The Wars, of course, is to assert that Ross’ actions were heroic in context. His liberation of the horses is cast against the shadowy psychopathy of WW1, a psychopathy so hideous it kept high-ranking military men from touring the front. Had they done so, the carnage of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele might not have materialized. More soldiers, from all forces involved, might have made it home.

tumblr_lsprl9gT4a1qeljaho1_250I taught Findley’s novel for many years and the poignancy of its message was rarely lost on my students. Its depictions of war are rendered through the voice of a historian calmly sifting through documentary evidence. Via transcripts, interviews and photographs, Findley’s characters come to life and we see that war’s damage, its pathology and momentum.  

I’m writing about The Wars because it seems conventional ideas about heroism are atomizing before our eyes. A broader and more relativistic way of seeing things, perhaps brought on by the pervasive use of the internet, is transporting us to a world where the villians are everywhere and they’re usually in charge. It’s created some odd bedfellows and even odder instances of cross-pollination. The Arab Spring, a political uprising with some very discernible causes, was “replicated” in Quebec by the Maple Spring, a student uprising that had a lot of us here scratching our heads. Having lived and traveled extensively throughout the middle east, I was puzzled by the students’ adoption of a name whose power was clear but whose basis for comparison was wildly inaccurate. Events like these leave a lot of us asking: who are the real heroes?

It’s my contention that literature can provide us with compelling exemplars and that fictionalized heroism, in particular, has much to teach us: its portrayals reflect paradigms of courage culled from history and give us enough flesh to hang on that bone. In novels like Findley’s we see heroism, in all its disturbing and glorious detail, laid painstakingly bare.

Another theorist interested in heroism, Margaret Heffernan, has written about a different breed of hero, the whistle-blower. In her latest book, Willful Blindness, she describes qualities she feels distinguishes them from others. Here is a summary of her findings:

  • – they seem to see things others can’t see
  • – they are curious and resourceful
  • – they are obsessive truth seekers
  • – they are often considered psychologically unstable
  • – they are optimists
  • – they are not innate rebels
  • – they believe truth will prevail

Most of Heffernan’s attributes don’t surprise. That most whistle-blowers are detail oriented, deeply engaged, and bring unique perspectives to problems is obvious. But two of her attributes stand out. The first is the common misconception that these individuals are psychologically unstable; the second is that they are not innate rebels.

The first of the two is important because feelings of instability are often what come of the cognitive dissonances whistle-blowers experience on an ongoing basis. For myself, I know there is a brief window of time, a blank nothingness like a broadcaster’s 7-second delay, that transpires before I realize a situation doesn’t make sense. Like many women, I often attribute that dead air to the perception that I’m unable to synthesize information quickly. However, I’ve learned that blaming myself usually isn’t fair. Given time to put my confusion in context, I can usually clarify who or what is wrong.

images (10)The second outstanding attribute — that whistle-blowers are not innately rebellious — also got my attention. It’s because I’m thinking of my struggles with the Canadian healthcare system and how unprepared I was. That lack of preparedness led me to become involved in the fight against institutional elder abuse, and that has put me in the company of activists of all stripes. It seems to me there is a divide among them and this observation of Heffernan’s comes close to defining it. Some activists come across as professional rebels, people who like a fight better than a cause.

To put this in context, I was like most Canadians before my mother became ill. I took the quality of our nation’s healthcare system for granted; I believed my mother would be treated fairly and that her carers would be professional and honest. The system’s failure to live up to those widely-held expectations wasn’t something I, or my fellow travellers in this fight, saw coming. Consequently, many of us felt conscripted into battles we weren’t ready for. That doesn’t make us any less committed; in fact, that ordering of events — our loved ones suffered and we decided to take up the larger cause — is a bit like Cinderella’s slipper. It identifies us as genuine: I see other outraged relatives speaking up and I know we’re in it for the right reasons.

So when it comes to activism, are there wrong reasons for getting involved?  I would say yes and that’s when definitions of heroism become useful.

storm_cloudsOne by-product of being pitched into a mighty battle is that one develops a heightened sense of vigilance. My trust in my government was shaken and it naturally followed that my ability to trust, in a general sense, was shaken too. So when an ominous thought appeared on my mental horizon, two things happened: a) I accepted it because I had become willing to; and b) I was too battle-fatigued to fight it.

And here is that thought: some individuals who lay claim to heroism actually create the conditions for it. For example, one of the primary physicians overseeing my mother’s care kept putting her off: he and his staff cancelled and then delayed appointments, lied to my family about having notified us and, generally, gave me and others involved in her care the impression that her condition didn’t merit a quick intervention. All of this served to create a disastrous delay that saw her admitted to hospital in inordinate pain with an infection that had run an almost fatal course. She survived, but not until after she’d suffered a stroke, a stroke likely caused by the blood clots that were running unchecked throughout her bloodstream.

When this physician did get around to saving her, he wasted no time describing his heroic actions to me. He arrogantly claimed that he, and he alone, had saved my mother. For someone in my position, the requisite response to a declaration like this — correct or not — is gratitude. I did thank him, but that 7-second delay, that dead air that signaled to me something was awry, made its presence felt in my consciousness. So the bubble over my head, after the delay passed, had these words written in it: “But you created the problem in the first place.” I knew better than to voice my thoughts, however. I’d seen that speaking up, in that hospital anyway, could be dangerous.

Mock heroism appears in other forms. Dawson College, where I teach, recently came under fire from web enthusiasts because of the expulsion of a 22 year-old computer science student, Hamed Al-Khabaz. Al-Khabaz discovered a security flaw in the college’s Omnivox system — where grades are stored — and reported it to the college who duly reported it to Skytech, the company that owns it. The college was initially grateful to Al-Khabaz, but unfortunately his curiosity didn’t stop there. He kept checking to see if the problem had been fixed and was finally given cease and desist orders, twice, to stop.

PAD1671The college issued these orders because while Skytech was busy trying to fix the system, Al-Khabaz kept breaking into it. In an ironic twist largely ignored by his supporters, Al-Khabaz’ signing of a non-disclosure agreement became known once he went to the media. That agreement, reached jointly in order to contain the breach, was wrongly cast in a sinister light and some journalists used it to portray Al-Khabaz as the hero, as the little guy who was being silenced and victimized by the menacing wrath of an evil institution.

I saw things differently and here’s how: Imagine you are working on your computer. A colleague walks past, notices a problem and suggests you fix it. You try, but your computer isn’t cooperating and your anxiety level is rising. Then, every five minutes, your colleague asks you if you’ve fixed it. You finally ask him to stop, not once but twice, because his interference isn’t helping. When you do solve the problem, your colleague takes the credit for spotting it, tells everyone you took forever to fix it and then manages to fit in a comment about how ungrateful you are.

Al-Khabaz’ supporters will hate to hear this, but that’s not heroic, it’s annoying. But to give him credit, his timing was canny: he was riding on the wave of anti-institutional feeling triggered by the suicide of American web activist Aaron Swartz.

This brings me to my last point: a lack of perspective when it comes to heroism can be dangerous.

Justin Peters wrote a tribute to Swartz in Slate and in it he made Swartz’ iconoclastic nature clear. A gifted learner, Swartz quit high school at 14 and went on to collaborate with others in developing a version of the RSS feed — the Real Simple Syndication — that allows individuals to be fed articles from their favourite websites. Ten years later, Swartz got into legal trouble when he planted a laptop inside an MIT computer closet and downloaded a substantial portion of JSTOR’s documents. When he went to retrieve the laptop, police arrested him.

jstor_logo_large_verge_medium_landscapeJSTOR is a non-profit organization that indexes and stores journals electronically, primarily for universities and libraries. The cost of subscription is significantly lower than other journal indexing and storage services (referred to as “aggregators”) and that’s because JSTOR hosts mainly archival rather than current content. Two of its main rivals, for example, are privately held, for-profit companies with subscription fees several times that of JSTOR’s. An institution like MIT would undoubtedly host them too.

And so this begs the question: why did Swartz break into JSTOR if, as he said, he believed information should be free? I’m making this observation because of all the indexing and storage services out there, JSTOR’s mission seems most in line with his thinking. It is non-profit, affordable and its access criteria are among the most liberal — they only cover their costs with their subscription fees. This means many institutions, like small libraries, can afford it. So the question is, why did Swartz risk so much to steal from an organization that was relatively inoffensive by his own standards?

We’ll never know the answer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Swartz, like that arrogant doctor and Hamed Al-Khabaz, was caught up in a hero template of his own making. He pitched his actions against a heroic backdrop but didn’t take into account the inconsequentiality of what he was actually achieving. Did this finally occur to him? That JSTOR was not the bad guy and that a conflict had been created over a situation that barely merited it?

A lot has been said about prosecutorial zealousness, but if the death threats Dawson administrators received are any indication, a respect for the law is something supporters of Swartz and Al-Khabaz don’t seem particularly interested in — a fact some lawmakers might feel determined to change and to change for the public good. Ask the thousands of people who have had their identities, or even just their credit card numbers, stolen online. Making a decision to work with institutions instead of against them might have helped. Even Justin Peters notes that:

This was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of impatience with unpleasant situations. Instead of trying to adapt to what he believed were rigid, broken institutions, Swartz would try to make those institutions adapt to him. And if they didn’t change, he would leave.

WW1soldiersSwartz was obviously brilliant, but he was also young. It’s also clear he was on a mission and saw himself as a liberator of information. But unlike Robert Ross in The Wars, Swartz’ act of civil disobedience doesn’t seem to have taken place in the context of genuine suffering. Instead, he acted on ideological grounds when his ideology, unfortunately, didn’t appear to come from a place of profound understanding. If it had, he might have chosen differently. He might have chosen to fight the battle on terms more amenable to everyone and targeted more appropriate “offenders.” He might not have painted himself into a corner by breaking the law; he might not have felt the need to end his life when the consequences, like so many harpies, came clamouring for him. These facts don’t just make his suicide tragic, they make it terribly so. His cause, the one he apparently died for, seems sadly flimsier than it ought to be.

It sounds trite, but a deeper understanding of how the world actually works might have helped Swartz and in fact might have helped all the men I’ve described here. A better understanding of behavioural templates, often derived from cultural archetypes and expressed in literature, might have helped them understand the transparency of their motives and the narcissistic aspect of their actions. They may have come to understand that we often play out our deepest needs in theatres of our own making and that even the most convincing altruism can disguise a profound yearning for acclaim. Our needs can be quite cunning in that regard and it is the job of maturity to bring us into closer contact with our souls, to give us the self-knowledge to deliver us from a life lived in the confines of less mature, less liberated versions of ourselves.

A line from a Margaret Atwood poem springs to mind. Her Helen of Troy tells us, “There’s nothing more opaque than complete transparency.” That’s a rather poetic way of telling us we’re all vulnerable to deception. I could have been fooled by my mother’s physician, I could have joined him in his belief he’d acted the hero, but an innate need to locate the truth wouldn’t let me. Throughout Atwood’s poem, Helen’s narrative makes the necessity of this diligence clear: her jaded voice warns us of the dangers of being dazzled by beauty, of failing to listen, and of making that fateful choice to see only what we want to see.

I included Heffernan’s thoughts on heroism because I have found them helpful. My experience with Canada’s healthcare system threw me into conflicts that tested my stamina and my spirit: like her whistle-blowers, I was truly a reluctant activist. However, spending time around other activists, particularly those interested in spreading democracy, has sensitized me to the nuances of activism generally. It’s been fascinating but difficult and my left of center politics have been sorely challenged at times. There’s an unspoken rule that leftists don’t criticize other leftists, but the gratuitous violence of the student uprising in Montreal and the willingness of some activists to break the law first and justify later, is troubling. That democracy is built on the idea of respect, and some activists aren’t willing to abide by that, is troubling too. The end result is a kind of stage heroism, a heroism that is too calculated, too self-referencing and too cold-blooded to come from the heart.

 niiiii (2)Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked as a flight attendant, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (led by Ed Broadbent). 

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