The First Canada Day

(Photo: Wayne Cuddington, copyright The Ottawa Citizen)


From the closing passages of Donald Creighton’s The Young Politician:

By nine o’clock, the public buildings and many large houses were illuminated all across Canada. When true darkness had at last fallen, the firework displays began; and simultaneously throughout the four provinces, the night was assaulted by minute explosions of coloured light, as the roman candles popped away, and the rockets raced up into the sky…

In Ottawa, long before this, Monck and Macdonald and the other ministers had quitted the Privy Council chamber; and Parliament Hill was crowded once again with people who had come to watch the last spectacle of the day. The Parliament buildings were illuminated. They stood out boldly against the sky; and far behind them, hidden in darkness, were the ridges of the Laurentians, stretching away, mile after mile, towards the north-west.


Why the terrorists hate us this week: Barkitecture

About once a week, the New York Times publishes a piece that makes me want to punch everyone involved in the face. This week's comes courtesy of the Homes section, which has a big feature on luxury doghouses that cost upwards of $25 000:

Traditionally, doghouses were where dogs actually lived, separate from the family. But now that dogs are increasingly considered members of the family, their homes are becoming more like second homes — and in some cases, they’re entirely ornamental. Sure, there are still plenty of doghouses built for dogs to live in. But there are also an impressive number built the way Christian Louboutin makes shoes: you can walk in them (sort of), but clearly that’s not the point.

Read the whole thing. Try not to kill anyone. 


Never let them forget the war

"Before they took good teeth out of dead people. Now they take it out of the living," was how Kostas Marthas described the tough conditions that had been set by the EU, the IMF and Germany, which is by far Europe's most successful and influential economy. 

Just lie back and repeat: Ever. Closer. Union. 

Why the terrorists hate us this week: Glamping

This is as wretched as it was inevitable:

You heard it here (or here) first. Anyone who’s anyone is spending $1,660 to sleep in a sleeping bag in midtown Manhattan. It’s called “glamping,” (glam camping—did you pick up on that?) and the Hyatt 48 Lex is the premiere destination. This summer, the luxury boutique hotel is offering patrons the chance to experience Manhattan’s iconic skyline from a different perspective: within it. They have a total of eight private terraces with high-end air beds, sleeping bags, and lanterns for that outdoorsman who doesn’t want to actually deal with, you know, nature.

“The idea is to create an urban adventure, like camping but in the middle of the city,” says the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Deirdre Yack.


Growth and Lamborghinis

Of all the ways in which American political and cultural life has become stridently polarized, perhaps the most damaging is the language surrounding the economy. Since he got elected, Obama has been portrayed by Republicans as a socialist, a vulgar form of red-baiting that would be laughable if the president didn't allow himself the occasional foray, rhetorically anyway, into class warfare.

The most recent example of this was Obama's attack on Bain Capital. And so, right on cue, comes a new book entitled Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, by Romney's former Bain Capital partner Edward Conard. 

I haven't read the book, but if a recent review in Business Week is to be believed, Conard's thesis is tricklenomics hitched to Archie comics: Imagine if Veronica Lodge's father was a market theorist, and you might get something like Conard's book. (According to the review, Conard dislikes charity because it isn't investment, and blames liberal arts majors for America's skills shortage). But the most telling passage from the review is this one:

Conard plainly cares about investment. He also cares about yachts. Where some conservatives suggest taxing consumption rather than income, Conard rejoins: “A heavy tax on consumption will discourage increased investment by making it harder to display status.” And since, as he elsewhere argues, “the thirst for … impressive homes, sleek boats, and exotic vacations” is what largely motivates people, such trinkets of affluence must be protected.

Set aside for now the obvious rejoinder that for many investors and capitalists, the accumulation of wealth, succeeding at building something that lasts and that people like, and basically being a river to your people is deeply satisfying; Conard's focus on status is usefully flawed.

He's certainly right, that the desire for status is a huge motivator (that's pretty much the driving thesis of both The Rebel Sell and The Authenticity Hoax). But what this ignores is that all status is relative. The argument behind the tax-consumption-not-income movement, especially the faction led by the economist Robert Frank, is that a steeply progressive consumption tax would serve as a sort of arms-limitation treaty on status consumption. So instead of the hyper-rich being able to buy 200 foot yachts, they'll only have 100-foot yachts. But because status is a positional good, (i.e., relative) it wouldn't matter because those would still be the biggest yachts around.

I actually saw evidence for this during my visit to Denmark. My friend Markus took me on a tour of Hellerup, the ritzy suburb just north of  Copenhagen. Some of the biggest celebrities in Denmark have homes there, including Lars von Trier,  Mads Mikkelsen, and some internet billionaire whose ex-wife took him to the cleaners and now lives next door.  And it was certainly a nice area, with wide streets, big homes, and a great view of the ocean. But the homes were not that nice -- not much nicer than you'd see on a decent stretch of upper Westmount or Forest Hill. 

At any rate, Hellerup represents nothing like the "out-of-sight" wealth that keeps the richest Americans on a separate plane of existence from the rest of the country -- Markus and I drove around, peered over fences and wandered the streets of Hellerup completely unmolested. If von Trier had walked by with his groceries I wouldn't have been remotely surprised. The thing is, taxes are so high in Denmark (the VAT alone is 25 percent), the richest people simply don't have the cash to compete in the manner that the 0.001 percenter Americans do. But in the pond that is Denmark, they're by far the biggest fish. 

How far you can push this argument depends in part on how much the ultra-rich in places like Copenhagen compare themselves to their counterparts in places like London or New York, feel envy at their inability to compete, and look for an exit strategy for their wealth. It also depends on whether the effect of all of this taxation, especially on consumption, leads to a shortage of investment capital. 

I don't have the figures handy, and I'm not a good enough economist anyway, to answer these sorts of questions. But if we start with the end goal, namely, a prosperous high-trust society governed by and through a healthy democratic system, then Denmark is already at the finish line. 


Review: Let the Right One In

I was channel surfing the other night and getting ready to head to bed when I saw that TVO was just starting a broadcast of Let the Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire flick directed by Tomas Alfredson (who is best known to English-speaking audiences as the director of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). The film got excellent reviews when it came out, so I made some tea and settled in. 

The plot is pretty straightforward. A 12 year-old boy named Oskar is being tormented by a group of bullies at school. Meanwhile, people are turning up dead in his housing project, their bodies hung from trees and drained of blood. Eventually, Oskar is befriended by Eli, who has just moved in next door with her father. Eli looks about 12, but is clearly wise beyond her years. She urges Oskar to fight back against the bullies, which he does. The violence at school escalates, as do the killings, while Oskar falls in love with Eli.  Except Eli is a vampire, which puts a crimp in things. 

The film pulls of the difficult manoeuvre of making use of the cliched tropes of vampire flicks from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys, which is why Eli can fly, is incredibly strong, and is afraid of the sun. What prevents it from getting anywhere near camp is the film's flat, almost emotionless tone (if you've seen TTSP, you know what it's like) and a storyline that spends far more time on Oskar's problems at school than it does on Eli's blood-sucking needs.

That is why a lot of reviewers interpreted it as a bullied-schoolboy revenge fantasy grafted onto a story of young lust. As one review put it, Let the Right One In is "a pensive meditation on the transcendent possibilities of human connection."

I found it to be a pensive meditation on the soul-destroying nature of love. Or at least, of the kind of self-denying obsession that adolescents fall into, and which too many people mistake for true love. To that end, there are two key scenes in the movie: The first is when Eli is preparing to go meet Oskar, and her apparent father, Hakan, pleads with her not to go meet that boy. There is a jealousy to his tone that suggests their relationship is more complicated than it appears.  The second crucial scene is when Eli goes to Oskar's house, and she stands waiting on the threshold of the door. Invoking yet another staple of the vampire canon, You have to invite me in, she says . When Oskar asks what happens if he doesn't, she enters and promptly starts bleeding from every orifice. Panicked, Oskar yells "I invite you in!"

With that, they are bound to one another for life. Oskar is destined to become the next Hakan, a friend and lover, then father figure and blood-sourcer for Eli, keeping her forever young while he ages and watches as the cycle repeats itself.

The moral of course, is right there in the movie's title. The trick to love is not about letting someone in to your heart,  it is about letting the right one in (a nuance lost in the title of the American remake, 2010's Let Me In.) If you let the wrong person in, they can become a vampire, sucking the lifeblood out of you and turning you into a slave to their every need. 

The last scene of Let the Right One In shows Oskar escaping on a train, with Eli in a box hiding from sunlight. The two of them tap sweet nothings to each other on the box in Morse code. This isn't a "romantic horror film", as Wikipedia describes it. It's a horror film about romance. 



An Afghan interpreter in Canada

As part of a touch-and-go media tour of Afghanistan two years ago, I spent a few hours at the headquarters of a Canadian OMLT on the outskirts of Kandahar City. The OMLT - for Operational Mentor and Liason Team -- was the business end of Canada's training mission in Afghanistan. Small groups of Canadian mentors -- about 30 or so -- would embed with ANA kandaks, and spend days and weeks out in the field, patrolling villages and engaging in move-to-contact missions. 

As the small troop of reporters I was with were being introduced to the Canadians, one of the officers made a point of drawing our attention to a squat Afghan wearing a rumpled uniform and a broad smile. "This is Froggy," the lieutenant said. "He's an interpreter." I looked at Froggy, who nodded and smiled. The Lt. went on: "Froggy saved one of our guys out in the field. He'd stepped on a mine, Froggy ran over, put tourniquets on what was left of his legs, and saved his life."

I looked at Froggy again, more sharply this time. He smiled some more. "Seriously?" I said. "Froggy's a bit of a hero around here," the Lt. said, then wandered off. Froggy and I chatted for a bit, and the source of his name became obvious: he spoke in a deep, guttural voice, almost like an Afghan Louis Armstrong.

Our stay at the base was hurried, and between the usual rounds of powerpoint decks with the Canadians and tea and nuts with the Afghans, I never saw Froggy again. But I always kept him in the back of my mind, partly because of what he had apparently done, but moreso because the way the tough-as-nails Canadians clearly worshipped him. 

And so here we are two years later, it turns out that Froggy is now living a few miles from me, in Ottawa, Canada. After receiving one night letter too many from the Taliban, Froggy (real name, Mohammad Rahman) decided to pack up his wife and seven children and come to Canada. It wasn't easy. Just as the Canadian government likes to support the troops when they are young and healthy and kicking Taliban ass but neglects them when they are wounded vets with PTSD and family problems, Canada made all sorts of promises to its Afghan terps about fast-tracking their refugee status if they wanted to come here, only to reject two thirds of all applicants. 

But with some of his Canadian friends pulling strings, Froggy made it to Canada. How is it going for him? To find out, you must listen to the CBC documentary, "The Interpreter", an outsanding piece of journalism by Julie Ireton, which aired this morning on The Current.  The closing scene, where Froggy is reunited (via Skype) with Major Mark Campbell, the officer whose life he saved four years ago, is an absolute triumph of storytelling. Yeah, I cried. So will you. 



Van Gogh's children


Last week, the new touring exhibition of Van Gogh's works on nature, "Van Gogh: Up Close", came to the National Gallery of Canada. It is expected to be the absolute blockbuster of the summer, following on the mega crowds it drew over the winter in Philadelphia. 

What is it about Van Gogh that transfixes us? The paintings, for sure. His weirdly compelling life, yes. But there has to be more to it. In a new book, Solar Dance, Modris Eksteins argues that to understand Van Gogh, and our reaction to his work, is to understand the cultural warp and political weft of the 20th century. It is to understand the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, the birth of the counterculture and the death of communism, and—not least of all—the great flourishing of celebrity culture and our obsession with the who of art, not the what. In sum, Eksteins writes: “Van Gogh is ours. We are Van Gogh.”

I review Eksteins' book in the new issue of the Literary Review of Canada. 

Here is Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen giving his own take on why we remain obsessed with Van Gogh. 

And here is professor Eksteins himself, writing inthe Citizen about Van Gogh's "extraordinary afterlife."



How politics escaped the clutches of reason

In a new essay I wrote with Joseph Heath, we try to explain how our politics came to be dominated by "truthiness", bullshit, and the rejection of facts. On the story we tell, our descent into unreason began with the confluence of two crucial events: The election of Ronald Reagan, the Great Confabulator, and the launch of CNN, which inaugurated the 24hr news cycle. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

Reason is not neutral between civilization and barbarism, and neither is intuition. Some things can be “framed” more easily than others. Tax resistance can be framed in a number of highly intuitive ways -- “They’re taking your hard-earned money!” being the most obvious. The case for paying taxes, on the other hand, is difficult to frame in an intuitive way. This is not an accident. The logic of taxation — the reason why markets fail to provide public goods, so that the state must intervene — is slightly counterintuitive. It’s not beyond the capacity of the average citizen to grasp, but it takes at least five minutes to explain — a lot longer than the current environment tends to allow.



Some links for the long weekend

In blind taste test, Danish people prefer cheap frozen chicken to expensive fresh chicken.

A new ethnography of lap dancing. 

Copenhagen cuisine has entered the realm of extreme authenticity. 

Why the streets of Copenhagen are so different from ours. (Answer: Bikes)

After years of pretending to be sick to avoid military duty, young Danish men are now lying about their health problems in order to serve. 

The Authentic Brands Group manages, inter alia, the Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe brands. 

On Romney: "What the search for authenticity should not attempt to do is serve as a kind of placeholder for character".

Artisan bagel baker sues Dunkin' Donuts for calling its bagels "artisan". 

The failure of Arab liberals:

 For al-Aswany, Eltahawy, and dozens of other liberal intellectuals, the urge to maintain “authenticity” and “credibility” in the new Arab landscape—not to mention feeding the angry Twitter mobs—trumps fidelity to liberal values any day.

Authenticity and the economy of esteem

The myth of cultural irony


A summer of fish: The worst job I ever had

(This piece was originally published in Now Magazine, August 2000)


I was standing in a pizza place on my lunch break. "God, something reeks in here," said the girl behind the counter, talking through her nose. I raised my hand. "Uh, that would be me."

"No, it smells like rotting garbage or something."

"I know," I said. "It’s me. I work at the fish market around the corner."

"Christ," she muttered, and walked into the back. As I waited for my slice, the manager came out and asked me if I would please wait outside.

I walked out, sat on the step and decided that it was time to apply to graduate school.

It was July, and I had been working at the fish market in Montreal for three months, ever since graduating from McGill with a BA in philosophy and a sense that, if the world didn’t quite owe me a living, I deserved at least a substantial line of credit.

 Slick slime

But there I was, earning $6.15 an hour, working 10-hour days knee-deep in chipped ice and fish guts, my hands infected and burning from countless cuts and puncture wounds, and every pore of my body impregnated with the odour of rotting seafood.

It’s hard to say which part of the job was the worst. I really hated the first couple of hours in the morning, before the store opened. A half-dozen of us had to haul up from the basement a few thousand pounds of fresh fish -- salmon and snapper, mackerel and monkfish packed in insulated boxes.

The 70-pound boxes, slick with fish slime and melting ice, often wouldn’t stay on the conveyor belt, so we’d have to drag them up the stairs one at a time.

Once the fish was up, we would fill huge tubs with ice chips that we shovelled out of the walk-in ice-maker, and then start rotating the fresh fish onto the long steel display counters. Overnight, blood and guts would leach out of the displayed fish into the bed of melting ice underneath. We would drain off a few gallons of this seafood slurpee, shovel fresh ice into the counters and replace the fish.

This part wasn’t too bad -- making the fish look presentable was mildly creative -- but it wreaked havoc on my hands. Red snapper were the worst: needle-sharp dorsal-fin rays poked through my gloves and gave me so many puncture wounds, I looked like a junkie who’d lost any hope of finding a decent vein.

 Daily restocking

Working in the frozen fish section wasn’t any fun either. The store had an immense industrial deep-freeze with wooden pallets piled with frozen fish reaching precariously toward the 30-foot ceiling.

In the summer, Montrealers apparently consume more frozen fish than they do jazz, and every day someone had to restock the display freezers with hundreds of packages of frozen calamari, sardines and prawns.

The deep-freeze was kept at a steady -35°C., and walking into it from the store’s humid summer air was an experiment in sudden, involuntary cryogenics. To borrow a line from Thomas Pynchon, it was like being hit over the head with a Swiss Alp. Freezing to death is supposed to be a fairly pleasant way to die. Not so pleasant, I would expect, would be freezing to death while pinned under a 500-pound solid block of frozen sardines that has toppled over onto you because your brain was too busy trying to avoid being flash-frozen to devote adequate resources to basic motor control.

But for sheer unpleasantness, nothing approached working at the customer service counter, where the corpses of just-purchased fish were subject to all manner of indignities.

"Cleaning fish" is a ridiculously Orwellian term for the most consistently disgusting activity I have ever been paid to perform.

The head fishmonger was a middle-aged Portuguese man named Manuel who clearly had it in for fish. Tiny Vietnamese women would approach the counter waving plastic bags filled with flailing, gasping carp recently plucked from the live fish tank. Manuel would take a carp, pin it down with one hand and bash its brains in with a heavy wooden mallet.

Then he’d toss it into the automatic scaling machine, basically a cross between a band saw and a car wash. The carp would slide down a groove into one end of the machine, there would be a loud metallic shriek, and it would shoot out the other end, sans scales. Occasionally, the carp weren’t entirely dead when they went through the scaler, and they would emerge in what appeared to be a considerable amount of pain.

My job at the counter was pretty straightforward. I would scale the fish, then take a heavy pair of scissored pliers and snip off all their fins. I would cut open their bellies from throat to anus, grip their gill rakers with the pliers and rip out their insides. Then I’d wash the fish out with a hose and pass them on to Manuel to be turned into filets.

All the fish parts that weren’t returned to customers as food went into a long trough that led to a hole in the floor. We would hose the blood and entrails down the hole to the basement, where it would sluice into more big plastic tubs. At the end of the day we had to stack these tubs in a walk-in fridge, where they would sit in primary fermentation.

 Allied soldiers

Once a week, the tubs were emptied into the hindquarters of a modified garbage truck with "Non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles" stencilled on the side.

The truck also made regular stops at local butcher shops and the humane society, and it generated an olfactory Doppler effect: you smelled it before you saw it. When it came crawling up St. Laurent, the cafe patios would clear, the streets would empty, windows would slam shut. The non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles guys would hang off the back of the truck, grinning and waving in their dark jumpsuits like Allied soldiers liberating Berlin.

Normally, the truck would pull up behind the store, we’d throw the tubs onto a conveyor belt, and the n-em/vn-c guys would empty them into the truck and toss them back down. But on this particular day, the conveyor had broken, and an employee named Marc and I had to carry the tubs, one at a time, to the truck.

Imagine the conveyor belt as the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, with a base (the floor of the basement) of 30 feet, and a height (the outer wall) of 8. We had to duck-walk the heavy tubs along the floor to the wall, from where it was 8 feet straight up to the street and the waiting arms of the n-em/vn-c guys.

Marc climbed halfway up the ladder built into the wall, leaving me to pick up a tub and lift it up so that he could grab one end. We then tried to muscle it up to the landing, but the geometry was all wrong. It was impossible to keep the tub level -- to get it to the lip of the landing, it would have to tip at about a 30-degree angle.

As we lifted, a steaming stew of rotting fish guts sloshed out of the lower end and onto my hand and face and oozed down my arms and neck.

Twelve or so tubs of that later, it was time for lunch.

Seven years later, I have just graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto, and I’m not sure if I’m any better off. I took that line of credit I thought the world owed me in the form of student loans, and I’m about to enter a flooded job market that sometimes seems to have it in for young scholars the way Manuel had it in for carp.

I wonder if it’s too late to apply to law school....

NOW | August 10-17, 2000 | VOL 19 NO 50



In praise being young, and in praise of bad jobs

It is a bad time to be young.
What's left to us can't be undone without it riding on our backs
when young and poor go hand in hand.
It is a bad time to be poor. -- The Rheostatics, Bad Time to Be Poor


As the song says, it's a bad time to be poor. But is there a bad time to be young?  It's easy to see why one might think so, especially if you happen to be young. We're in a stubborn economic slowdown; the federal government is proposing changes to key strands of the social safety net, while the federal minister of finance, Jim Flaherty, made what sounded like a hugely insensitive remark: "I was brought up in a certain way. There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job," he told reporters. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."

The question we're tempted to ask then, is not why are the students in Quebec rioting, but rather, why isn't every other student in the country joining them?

But like most apparent injustices, this one is more complicated than it looks. To begin with, being young and poor tend to "go hand in hand" for the simple reason that young people haven't been around long enough to acquire money, or the skills that allow you to make a lot of it. To properly grasp the essential relationship between being young and being poor, watch this video by Louis CK:

This is pretty much just a standup comedian's version of Jim Flaherty's comment. And they aren't wrong. If you're 20, you're probably going to get a shitty job. You know what you should do? Take Louis CK's advice: Do the shit out of it. 

The summer I graduated from university in Montreal, the unemployment rate was almost double what it is today. The year I started, the Quebec government unfroze tuition rates that had been the same since the 1960s -- my total fees doubled in the four years I was at McGill. By the summer of 1993 I had a BA in philosophy, the city was a disaster, and the economy was in the tank. 

Nevertheless, I still had the sense that the world owed me living. What I got, instead, was job as a fishmonger, making $6.15 an hour. 

It was the worst job I ever had. But in a way, it was also the best job I ever had. I did the shit out of it. A few years later, in the summer of 2000, a time when I was still young-ish, and still very poor, Leah Rumack asked me to write about it for Toronto's Now Magazine. (Here's what I wrote).

I promise, you'll learn more from the bad jobs you take as a 20 year old than you will in any other job you'll get. Once you get older, people start giving you jobs because you have skills, training, or ability. And you got those skills or training because you wanted to do the job. That means you're on a glide trajectory, in a comfort zone, following the path of least resistance. The day you start doing a job you like is the day you start to die, just a bit. 

Having a bad job is a sign that you are still young. And as everyone eventually realizes, there is never a bad time to be young. 



Which is more authentic, striptease or burlesque?

(This contribution is from Ulla Holm, a sociologist and columnist at the Danish newspaper Information.)


It’s funny what a label can do. Dancing in sexy underwear in front of an audience is demeaning, objectifying, alienating and reproducing gender stereotypes when women do it for money in strip clubs, whereas the exact same thing is liberating, subversive and artful once it’s called ”Burlesque”.

That I learned the other night when watching a documentary on Danish television about the the American Neo-burlesque icon ”Dirty Martini”. Prior to the tv tribute to Dirty Martini there was a documentary about girls who do strip tease for a living in British night clubs: these girls expressed a great deal of satisfaction over the acknowledgement and money they receive from pleasing the costumers with their pole dancing.

In the burlesque universe, however, the motive of pleasing the audience is a sin and makes you just another slave of the Culture Industry. That at least is what Dirty Martini seemed to suggest with her proud remark that she doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks of her ”performance”, all she cares about is ”being comfortable in her body” and with her ”art”. What you do in burlesque is ”perform,” whereas normal strippers just do work. Apparently what strippers do cannot be classified as ”art”. In an interview with Timeout Dirty Martini says ”we know what I’m up there for, and we know it’s not the same reason a stripper might be on a pole.” And she goes on to say that’s what makes her performance so ”subtle”, it’s ”a form of self-expression” and ”political speech” as opposed to standard striptease.

So: what supposedly makes burlesque so avant-garde in opposition to mainstream stripping is that it’s not done for money or other people’s enjoyment. As Dirty Martini says in another interview with ”21st Century Burlesque Magazine”: ”Why perform? Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money, making people happy or any lofty values. Performers must do it. It burns in their veins. To be quite frank, if you want to be famous, don’t do burlesque. Become a pop singer or an actor. People love that crap and you can make millions.”

This echoes the Wikipedia definition of Burlesque ”performers” which reads: ”Unlike strippers who dance in strip clubs to make a living, burlesque performers often perform for fun and spend more money on costumes, rehearsal and props than they are compensated.”

What it all boils down to is this: When a woman takes her clothes off for commercial gain, it is alienating and inauthentic. On the other hand, it highly empowering, self-actualizing, and authentic when there are no financial interests involved. The failure to get paid, then, is what transforms it from exploitation into art. Obviously it all adds to the authenticity of burlesque that its performers make references to burlesque icons of the past, lending it a sort of cultural superstructure that goes down well with academics. Another authenticity bonus is the fact that burlesque, according to the curatorial statement of the Danish New Burlesque Festival, ”has existed since time immortal and we will find examples of burlesque in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work in ancient Greece, and also in the renaissance works of Shakespeare.” Modern striptease, because it has no such fine history, cannot make any claim to any such cultural distinction.

It is ironic that burlesque speaks out so loudly for the female need to feel comfortable about oneself, because its requirement for authenticity is what frames normal strippers as poor commodified sex objects with no cultural value and keeps us and the strippers themselves from attaching any real value and prestige to what they do. They may be enjoying their work, but outside the clubs it’s ”stripped” of the celebration and recognition that Dirty Martini and her queer co-artists enjoy. But hey, in contrast to burlesque performers, striptease dancers are out there actually making an effort to please their audience. Shouldn’t we give them credit for that?

Back in 1853 Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Colet: “To publish something is to degrade yourself and your work, it’s to give up being an artist.” What this quote translates into is highly reflective of the Burlesque logic: Work performed with the intention of pleasing an audience ceases to be worthy of the “art” label and becomes self-humiliation. This is reminiscent of Kant’s view that the aesthetic object must be separated from any interests outside itself – be they money, power or recognition. It’s sad, because it cuts off a whole array of phenomena and experiences – such as striptease - from aesthetic appreciation and makes being in the world a lot less fun.

Finally, if you want to see how absurd the burlesque argument is, substitute "taking your clothes off" for another chore that women have been doing for millennia, namely, "housework." According to this view, women who clean other peoples' houses for money are doing menial, alienating work. But cleaning your own home, for no one's pleasure but your own? That's authentic and empowering.

Ulla Holm can be reached at



Moral pressure at the cash register: No one likes it. 

I asked my Twitter followers how they feel about the growing trend where retail outlets ask you if you care to make a donation to a charity of their choice, just as you are slapping down an unreasonable amount of money for booze, junk food, trinkets, gewgaws, or other unnecessary items. 
Either I have a churlish set of Twitter followers, or it's a widely despised phenomenon. Here are some responses. 
  Giving a donation when you're wallet is already out is kinda like getting sucked in by an internet pop up.

  I always say no.

  I think (I KNOW) it works. I would like to know how big the "guilt factor" is - why do not more people say no?

  annoying but wonder if it is effective.

  If they offer charitable donation receipts, then I have no problem.
  Depends on how reputable the charity is and how hard the sell . . . but I'm not opposed to it in principle.
  I don't agree. They put you on the spot. Their choice may not be my choice.
  Hate being asked, hate that a cashier is forced to ask me. Feels like supporting their corporate "goodwill," not cause itself
  interesting use of social pressure, e.g., dont want to look like a Scrooge to cashier & people in line.
  I hate it. And I'm cynical so I know that the strategy is "people can't refuse so it's a golden idea for fundraising".


  Hate that. But often get sucked in. The guilt!

 *%$#! RT : What do we think about retail outlets that ask you to donate to a charity of their choice at the cash register?
  Good luck saying no to a CHEO donation when your kids are with you.
  If it raises money for a good cause why not. If you disagree with the charity, just say no. Generally not a pressure sale.


  We feel bad for those employees, who have been told that their numbers are being tracked and minimums are expected.


Sir Lovesalot, or, the rise of conspicuous honour



With his horse, Coeur-de-Lion, the French-Canadian Vincent Gabriel Kirouac is spending the summer dressed as a knight. Why?

“I’m crossing Canada on horseback dressed as a knight, to remind people of the values of long ago, such as devotion,” he said.

“All the values of the knight.”

The ancient code of chivalry is an interesting list of virtues, a mix of the anachronistic ("serve the liege lord in valour and faith"), the mildly sexist ("To respect the honour of women"), the ridiculously noble ("To despise pecuniary reward"), and the wonderfully sublime ("To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun"). For the most part, it is completely incomprensible to the modern mind. 

When I give my authenticity spiel, at some point some one usually asks where I think the culture is going next. So we had conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, the conspicuous rebellion, then conspicuous authentiticy. What next? I usually try to weasel out of a serious answer ("Just like the present, but moreso" is my usualy reply). Or I suggest that if I really knew, I'd be investing in that thing and would soon be rich. 

But if I had to bet, I'd say we are headed for a fairly reactionary period. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Neo-Victorian movement, for example, where a return to 19th century values amplifies the already-huge steampunk culture. The hipster-Christian trend is part of that, I think.

But perhaps something else is afoot: a return to pre-modern attitudes towards chivalry, honour, and loyalty, fed by the twin streams of relentless cultural nostalgia (and its obverse, irony) and the growing crisis of masculinity. I would put the Trudeau-Brazeau fight (and the remarkably complex set of responses to it) in this trend. 

And then there is Vincent Gabriel Kirouac, knight-errant. If the public reaction to his -- ok I'll say it -- Quixotic journey across Canada is any indication, there's a niche here ready to be exploited. Dare we call it "conspicious honour"?