Cultural Appropriation in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Dear Hal et. al.,

We’d like to assume you were attempting to write something as poignant as this piece in the Washington Post. Instead, you sounded much more like Lionel Shriver. Was this a sincere attempt to create a safe space where indigenous writers could be celebrated? Somehow we thought the Writers’ Union of Canada would contain members with some expertise regarding the creation of safe spaces.

We’re here to help.

Please copy and post where you can.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

Joshua Whitehead

Richard Van Camp

Tanya Roach

Louise Bernice Halfe

Elaine J. Wagner

Gord Grisenthwaite

Alicia Elliott

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Cherie Dimaline

Rukhsana Khan

Drew Hayden Taylor

Helen Knott

 

This interview is over…

Maxime Bernier addresses his political commitment to the people of Beauce in an interview with ALLO POLICE:

“The unobserved state is a fog of probabilities, a window of and for error. The watcher observes. The fog collapses, an event resolves; a theory becomes a fact.”

“Illuminating sentiments, Maxime.”

“There can be no more secrets. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I have nothing to hide. From now on I will hide nothing. Only an open society can be a just society.”

“Most revealing. Very impressive. You’ve made your point.”

“I have made the choice to continue my mission. In the entrepreneurial culture that is ours when you get hit hard, you roll up your sleeves and start working again. I am more convinced than ever that my political commitment as MP for Beauce maintains its relevance.”

“I suppose that we mustn’t ask you how the leak was discovered.”

“Don’t you know that a record like that can be faked?!”

“It was word for word as 69300 wrote it. Almost like a scan of the actual document, so one might have thought that the leak was there if it weren’t for a few corrections and deletions. Inaccuracies which could only have been spotted by comparing the report with the files.”

“The level of importance of those briefing notes did not justify them being numbered so their disappearance would be noticed or they could be tracked. No alarm was set off in my department.”

“Why did you go to Italy, of all places, to seek asylum? Were you looking for a certain kind of protection?”

“Now we turn the page. I went to Ottawa to defend Beauceron values.”

“Several of the documents that went missing were marked secret. Two were marked ‘NATO restricted’. One of those documents was an invitation to the NATO summit in Bucharest. The other document was briefing material produced by the Canadian government to prepare you for the summit -”

“How would you know all of that? Are you working with her? This interview is over.”

the feminist

GENDER BLUR

In 1906, an American geneticist, named Nettie Stevens, made a discovery of something that has become such a foundational part of our knowledge that we now take it for granted. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the chromosomal theory of inheritance was still relatively new. This theory was not entirely accepted by most scientists, in part, because not enough empirical evidence had been gathered to support it. While studying the chromosomes of beetles and mealworms, Stevens was able to recognize certain patterns. These patterns happened to correspond to differences between two sexes: male and female. Nettie Stevens discovered the chromosomal factor that determines the sex of offspring. In other words, she discovered the “sex chromosomes”.

If we fast-forward about ninety years, we can find the work of another scientist by the name of Deborah Blum. In her book, entitled Sex on the Brain , Blum generally takes a two-sex system of reproduction for granted. She builds upon this assumption with great abandon. Blum abandons any evidence that proves contrary to a simple two-sex system. Blum abandons the fact that most species on Earth do not make use of a simple two-sex system of reproduction. The only thing that she doesn’t abandon are the norms of the gendered environment in which she (like most North Americans) was raised.

According to the renowned, American evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, “We live now in the ‘Age of Bacteria.’ Our planet has always been in the ‘Age of Bacteria’… On any possible, reasonable or fair criterion, bacteria are – and always have been – the dominant forms of life on Earth. Our failure to grasp this most evident of biological facts arises in part from the blindness of our arrogance…” (Gould, 1996). As it happens, bacteria reproduce through binary fission, which is a form of asexual reproduction. Therefore, bacteria do not conform to any sort of male-female sexual divide. Theirs is a one-sex system of reproduction. In 1996, Gould published the article from which this quote is taken in the Washington Post Horizon. In 1997, Blum maintains (in Sex on the Brain) that “self-replication is incredibly rare. It doesn’t offer the survival advantages of genetic variability. If biologists are right, a one-sex system would have doomed us all long ago” (Blum, 1997, p. 5). In fact, it’s a one-sex system that acts as the backbone of life on Earth. As Gould spelled out in his article, “Bacteria form the root of life’s entire tree. For the first 2 billion years or so, about half of life’s full history, bacteria alone built the tree of life.” Not only does an asexual (self-replicating) system do most of the work when it comes to supporting life on Earth, but bacteria are incredibly adept at survival. Gould states that “bacteria live in all habitats accessible to any form of life, while the edges of life’s toleration are almost exclusively bacterial”.

In her first chapter, Blum tells her reader that, “Biologists are still trying to figure out why life demands two sexes… From the beginning of evolutionary theory, biologists have been stumbling over this one” (Blum, 1997, p. 3). She briefly discusses the fact that asexual reproduction is much more efficient than a two-sex system of reproduction. Then, a few pages later, Blum tries to convince her reader that asexual life usually self-destructs. Specifically, she mentions computer simulations run by the University of Oregon that compare asexual with sexual reproduction (Blum, 1997, p. 9). Less specifically, she doesn’t provide her reader with any kind of citation, so we don’t know when these simulations were done and under what conditions they were run. On this page, Blum also tries to use the example of an African freshwater snail to explain how sexual reproduction has gained prevalence in the natural world. She claims that this particular species of freshwater snail reproduces asexually during the dry season in Kenya, and then reproduces sexually when the season becomes wetter in order to better protect its offspring from the attack of a parasite. “The attacker is a tiny thread of a worm – scientists call it Bulinas truncatas – also known for weaving its destructive way into human bodies, destroying livers and kidneys.” It’s difficult to determine exactly what Blum is referencing in this particular sentence. The name of the freshwater snail in question is actually Bulinus truncatus. It seems as though she may also be referring to schistosome parasites, to whom the Bulinus truncatus plays host. The disease, schistosomiasis, is caused by the parasitic schistosome worm which can invade the intestines and liver of human hosts. Regardless of the miscommunication, Blum uses this example to illustrate one way in which asexual reproduction proves insufficient when it comes to guaranteeing the survival of a certain population. On the other hand, this example shows us that sexual reproduction proves insufficient to guarantee the survival of a population: when the dry season returns, the snails discontinue their sexual practices and begin reproducing asexually again.

In his article, Gould points out that during the course of his education, taxonomy of the natural world changed from a twofold division (into plants and animals) of organisms to a five kingdom system of classification. He believes that most of Western history favored a “biblically sanctioned” twofold division because it produced a host of practical consequences (such as dividing the natural world into two traditions of study: zoology and botany) (Gould, 1996). Unfortunately, single-celled organisms (such as bacteria) did not fit the description of members in either the plant or animal category. When he entered high school, although there were still only two categories of organism, he was taught that “single-celled organisms probably deserved a separate kingdom of their own”. By the time he left graduate school, a five kingdom system of division had become “all the rage”.

In chapter four of her book, called “Sexing the Body”, scientist, Anne Fausto-Sterling describes the reaction to an article that she published in the New York Times in 1993. The article was entitled, “How many sexes are there?” In it, Fausto-Sterling suggested that we replace our two-sex system with a five-sex one in order to better reflect human (in particular, newborn infant) physiology. “In addition to males and females, [Fausto-Sterling] argued, we should also accept the categories herms (named after ‘true’ hermaphrodites), merms (named after male ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites’), and ferms (named after female ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites’)” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 78). She was surprised by the amount of controversy that this article unleashed. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights went so far as to pay for their own space in the New York Times, advertising their admonition of anyone who might succumb to the notion of ‘five genders’ “when every sane person knows there are but two sexes both of which are rooted in nature” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 78). The funny thing is that a two-sex system of reproduction is not as well-rooted in nature as many people would like to believe.

When species of bacteria are not included in the count, arthropods make up 80% of all known species on earth. An arthropod is an invertebrate that has an outer skeleton and a segmented body with jointed appendages. This category of organism includes insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. Arthropods exhibit incredible diversity in their methods of reproduction. Some species don’t even have sex chromosomes. Perhaps the extremely wide range in species that compose the arthropod category is due, in part, to the variety demonstrated in their forms of reproduction. For example, scientists speculate that beetles, alone, compose approximately one quarter of all species on Earth (not counting bacteria, of course) (Sohn, 2010). Many species of tiger beetle (or Cicindelidae) exhibit multiple sex chromosomes. This means that there isn’t simply one X chromosome and another chromosome that could be an X or a Y. Instead, there are multiple X chromosomes, and in some cases, no Y at all. With all of this diversity, one might begin to question how it was that we came to differentiate between a female and a male beetle in the first place.

In his book, Making Sex, Thomas Walter Laqueur describes some of the controversy that ensued as the Western scientific world made the transition from a one-sex model of the human body to a two-sex model of the human body. According to Laqueur, up to about the middle of the eighteenth century “there had been one basic structure for the human body, and that structure was male” (Laqueur, 1990, p. 10). It’s understandable that Nettie Stevens would search so rigorously to find a scientific basis for her gender. Technically, the female body had only been around for about 150 years. The difficulty lies in determining exactly how much our perceptions regarding gender influence scientific research. When scientists fail to examine their own biases they fall prey to making conclusions that are not necessarily warranted by the evidence they’ve gathered. Scientists may also fail to collect evidence that does not suit preconceptions that they’ve formed about the very object of their investigations. In short, there exists a plethora of ways in which our scientific communities may fail us by taking certain beliefs for granted. If we wish to achieve progress in our knowledge of the world we must remain vigilant and challenge our experts when we believe they are missing a key part of human experience.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blum, D. (1997). Sex on the Brain, The Biological Differences Between Men and Women. New York, New York: Penguin Group.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body, Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York, New York: Basic Books.

Gould, S. (1996). Planet of the Bacteria. The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive. Retrieved 30/11/2012, from www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_bacteria.html

Laqueur, T. (1990). Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Sohn, E. (2010). Animal, Plant Species Less Diverse Than Once Thought. Discovery News. Retrieved 30/11/2012, from http://news.discovery.com/earth/biodiversity-animals-plants-extinction.html

OH the humanity!

“Oil Sands” of Alberta… What if we’re wrong?

There is an abundance of information available concerning a certain, potentially large,  resource of energy located in northeastern Alberta. There’s also an abundance of controversy regarding this resource, so much so, that one may be hard-pressed to determine exactly what we should even be calling this particular reserve of potential fuel. We can agree on the fact that there’s bitumen involved, but that may be as far as the agreement extends. Consequently, there is a quagmire of debate concerning the facts of this situation. Does Canada have a treasure trove of prosperity on its hands, or have we discovered a way to fast-track an incredible ecological disaster? The answer seems to be that we do indeed have an enormous deposit of fossil fuel, and in order to obtain it we will steadily dig our own graves.

First of all, what exactly are we talking about? Well, officially governing bodies will inform you that we’re talking about oil sands. They’ll also tell you that “oil sand is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay or other materials, water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely viscous oil that must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel”. This source will also try to inform you of the fact that “tar and oil sands are different; while oil sand is a naturally occurring petrochemical, tar is a synthetically produced substance.” If these two substances are so different then how is it that anyone could mix them up? According to Wikipedia (under the entry “Tar”), “Bitumen is a term used for natural deposits of oil ‘tar’.” If you were to wander along certain river valleys in northeastern Alberta on a hot summer’s day, you could witness a sticky, tar-like substance oozing from the rocky outcrops by which you are surrounded. We may not be able to agree on whether this substance tar or oil, but perhaps we can agree on the part that is bitumen. Now, the question is, what are we going to do with it?

Apparently, we’ve already begun to refine it, and we’ve been doing so since 1967. In 1967, the world’s first large-scale oil sands operation began development on deposits that lie under 141 000 square km of boreal forest and muskeg. We’ve been mining this territory for 45 years. “Surface mining requires the trees and muskeg to be stripped away along the top layers of the earth to expose the bitumen beneath it. Two tonnes of matter is removed for every one barrel of oil produced.” At the same time, Alberta Energy tells us that “Approximately 80% of oil sands are recoverable through in-situ production, with only 20% recoverable by mining.” If this is true then why did Suncor Energy open its first mine in 1967, and begin producing 30 000 barrels of synthetic crude oil a day? Why would Syncrude open a second mine in the Athabasca “sands” that began operation in 1978? Why would Shell Canada open a third mine that began operation in 2003? Why are these mines being greatly expanded and why are new mines being planned? Perhaps we need to ask someone from Alberta Energy about this strange turn of events. Afterall, they are the organization in charge of managing that province’s non-renewable resources.

While we’re at it, lets also ask Alberta Energy what they plan on doing with this particular mass of 141 000 square km once all the bitumen is gone. They don’t tell us whether it will be possible for any vegetation to grow there. They don’t tell us about how important boreal forest and muskeg is to just about every ecosystem in Canada. They don’t tell us about what the collapse of that ecosystem would mean for any humans who live in or near that mass of 141 000 square km. Then again, since their mandate only covers non-renewable resources, it’s entirely possible that the good people at Alberta Energy would know nothing about how to bring back a peat bog that’s been growing on the same spot for 1000 years. They probably don’t know much about how the growth of a peat bog will trap snow melt and help to prevent flash floods. On the other hand, we would like to think that anyone working for Environment Canada would be well aware of the fact that mining has been carried on at the Athabasca site since 1967, and that mining there continues to this day. Unfortunately, if they are aware of this fact it would appear that the people at Environment Canada do not want to draw our attention to it. Their website gives us the exact same information provided by Alberta Energy. That’s quite a coincidence, especially since neither site tells us how to reach the conclusion that only 20% of the available bitumen is accessible through surface mining. Syncrude Canada Ltd. tells us outright that they “operate a large oil sand mine”. Suncor Energy also informs us about the mining operation that they use to extract bitumen from the Athabasca sands site. How is it that these companies are being more upfront about their operations than the governing bodies that are supposed to be regulating them?

When the subject is “oil sands” production, at the very least, it would appear that our governing officials are attempting to mislead us. Why would they do such a thing? Unlike such corporations as Suncor and Syncrude, our government is responsible for the health and safety of Canadians. If the people at Alberta Energy and Environment Canada can pretend that there’s very little surface mining associated with the extraction of bitumen from the Athabasca sands then they can minimize the amount of damage that this process causes to the ecosystem in that area. If there’s very little damage occurring to the environment as a result of “oil sands” production, then this industry poses very little danger to the health and safety of the public at large. In 2009, Suncor Energy became the second-largest company in Canada. It’s clear that there are billions of dollars in profit to be made from this industry. What’s less clear are the costs to our health in the long term. Can we survive the environmental consequences of the actions that these organizations take?