The Agony of Authenticity, or the impossibility of gift-giving

This is pretty much self-explanatory:

Part of the anxiety of gift-giving in New York at this moment in history arises from the fact that you can’t merely buy a gift; you must supply a narrative, and the narrative must be in some sense homespun, which then positions you in tasteful opposition to the vulgar excesses of the 1 percent. Fulfilling this obligation ultimately demands that you go to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, no matter the inconvenience, because Williamsburg has made the greatest strides in creating a retail experience that feels like Iowa circa 1950.

That's from Ginia Bellafante, the world's foremost po-faced chronicler of conspicuous authenticity. 


Jay-Z, Adbusters, and the selling of rebellion

Mogul (Jay-Z Occupies Occupy Wall Street), by Daniel Edwards

When it comes to profiting off anti-capitalist sentiment, it is hard to see what distinguishes the Blackspot sneaker from Jay-Z’s “Occupy All Streets” T-shirt. For that matter, it is hard to see what distinguishes either of these from other successful businesses that arose out of a desire to “do capitalism differently,” from The Gap and Starbucks to the Body Shop and Whole Foods...

That's from my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen...


The Fur Trade in Canada

This press release makes me unreasonably happy:


YELLOWKNIFE (November 22, 2011) The GNWT is doubling the number of fur pelts trappers can claim under the Grubstake program, from 200 to 400 pelts per trapper. This enables the most productive trappers to receive additional start-up funding in the fall of 2012.

“The increase to the pelt threshold is in direct response to requests from our productive trappers,” said Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, David Ramsay. “Wild fur from the Northwest Territories is in demand from buyers around the world, and this increase will provide eligible trappers with funds to defray a portion of their start-up costs at the beginning of each trapping season. It will also stimulate increased production of wild fur.”

Under the Grubstake program, a payment of $5 per pelt of any fur-bearing species is paid to all trappers who ship at least 20 fur pelts to auction, now to a maximum of 400. This payment is in addition to the guaranteed advance and prime fur bonus that are paid to eligible trappers through the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs Program. Grubstake payments occur in the fall prior to the start of the new trapping season and are based on production from the previous year’s fur harvest. 

Trapping season in the NWT runs from October to June, the period when fur is most market-ready. Trappers who participate in the program must have General Hunting Licenses or be land-claim beneficiaries. Fur can be brought to the wildlife officers at local Department of Environment and Natural Resources offices to be entered into the program.

Through the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs Program, the Government of the Northwest Territories works in partnership with NWT harvesters and the fur industry to support and promote the traditional fur economy. In the 2010/11 fiscal year, the program invested $121,709 into the NWT trapping industry.


For more information, please contact:

Alayna Ward

Manager, Public Affairs and Communications

Industry, Tourism and Investment

Government of the Northwest Territories



David Frum: Running From Crazy

In a column a couple of months ago (entitled "Getting to Crazy") Paul Krugman noted that the Republican party had long since gone off the deep end, but "If you’re surprised, that means that you were part of the problem." The crack was almost certainly directed at his colleague David Brooks, who has spent the past few years acting as the press agent for Republican insanity, wrapping it in the thin intellectual cloth of pidgin behavioural economics.

Yet for a few years now, David Frum -- himself once one of the chief hatchet-men of true-believer Republicanism -- has been calling bullshit on what his former comrades have been up to. His final break with Republicanism is published in the latest issue of New York Magazine:

The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers.

To sum up: By his own account, David Frum has been a loyal Republican since the Reagan years. Yet over the past half decade, the party has literally gone insane, embracing apocalyptic rhetoric and scorched-earth political tactics, while embracing all manner of lunatic-fringe views on everything from global warming to evolution to the president's place of birth. For his pains, Frum has lost his job, lost his friends, and been blacklisted from opportunities to appear conservative talk shows, panels, and so on.

And yet, for some reason, he ends on a note of optimism. Fixing the Republicans, he says, will be the "fight of a political lifetime. But a great political party is worth fighting for."

It isn't clear to me why Frum is still a Republican. At the beginning of his essay, he flags his ideological committments as rooted in "free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government."

Yet apart from the idee-fixe of low taxes, none of this is the exclusive purview of the Republicans. In fact, the last two - reasonable regulation and limited government -- are principles upon which the Republicans under Bush declared all-out war. So again, why is David Frum still a Republican?

It is credible that David Frum is running from crazy. But he hasn't, yet, run far enough.



Gary Shteyngart on the jewish deli of the past and the authenticity hoax

Gary Shteyngart visits a Toronto deli:

The authentic Jewish deli, according to Gary Shteyngart, should be "greasy," inspiring "both excitement and revulsion." Caplansky's Delicatessen, where he's sitting at a corner table, devouring a breakfast omelette with salami, tomato and tongue, "is very smooth 'cause it's new." But he's not complaining: "There's all that Chagalllike mythologization of the past. It wasn't a great past. There's a reason why we're not living there now."


The End of Authenticity

All of a sudden, the authentic is on the outs. The first intimations came last summer, when a major marketing magazine declared that authenticity has lost its cachet. Then USA Today ran a piece pointing out that if Starbucks can call its breakfast sandwich “artisanal,” and if Tostitos can say the same thing about its corn chips, then maybe artisanal is just a synonym for mass-produced. But the last hand-forged nail was driven into the reclaimed-wood coffin recently when the New York Times published a long feature under the title, “All that authenticity might be getting old”...

That's from my latest column for The Ottawa Citizen.


Authenticity Watch: VHS 

From - where else -- the NYT.

Technological slumming -- check:

“You just don’t get the same feeling in a pristine print of a DVD,” Mr. Kinem said. “With VHS it’s like I’m experiencing an old grind-house movie theater. I would never watch them on a computer.”

Old-timey small-town slow-ism -- check, check, check:

“VHS represents a period when you could walk into a mom-and-pop video store, and what you could rent was limited to what was right in front of you,” Ms. Davis said. “There were these amazing illustrations on the big boxes, and no one had any idea what the movie was. You were taking a gamble. It’s the opposite of instant gratification.”

Nostalgia for manual labour -- check.

“VHS is cumbersome,” said Mr. Husney (who was creative director of Intervision before moving to Drafthouse). “You have to maintain it. It has to fit on a shelf. You may have to dust it off. But you also get to interact with a piece of art on a personal level.”

Thanks to Simon Cott.


The end of artisanal and the rise of paleo-cuisine

The paleo-cuisine shtick has been brewing for a while, but with organic discredited, local passé, and artisanal just another word for "mass produced", authenticity hunters are increasingly flocking to the pre-modern past.

Berlin's new restaurant, "Sauvage", advertises a 'Real Food Revolution - Paleolithic cuisine!'. Forget bread, sugar, butter -- just fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and herbs, with a bit of raw meat thrown in for fun. According to Sauvage's Boris Leite-Poç:

Many people think the Paleolithic diet is just some hipster trend, but it's a worldwide phenomenon, with an online community that spans the globe. The trend is probably strongest in the United States, where people who have had enough of the fast food way of life and generations of illness have taken it up.

 Right, it has nothing to do with some hipster trend and everything to do with health. The modern world, as everyone knows, poisons us from cradle to crave. That is why life expectency today is so short compared to pre-historic times. 

Carol Alt: "Raw saved my life"

Supermodel and hockey wife Carol Alt was in my office at the Ottawa Citizen today. She talked about how moving to a raw diet rescued her looks, skin, and hair and solved lots of other health issues.



The first cliche to do worse than its parents

Commiserating with a friend the other day, a young journalist just getting started in her career and worried about her prospects, she lamented that her generation, the millennials, was expected to be the first to do worse than their parents. Whatever we call them -- some are calling them "Generation Z" , while others are calling them Generation R, for Recession -- you don't have to look far for examples of this lament.

Here's a line from a 2011 issue of Unlimited Magazine: "There’s a lot of speculation that Generation Me, the Millenials, will be the first generation to do worse than their parents, because they’ve always been provided for. They don’t have anything driving them to do better."

A Joe Queenan column from a 2010 Wall Street Journal: "Economists theorize that this may be that very rarest of things: a generation that does not do as well financially as the generation that spawned it."

My friend Jason Kirby used it in 2009 for Maclean's. Here's Anya Kamenitz, discussing her 2007 book Generation Debt: "The whole premise of Generation Debt the book is, you know, what does it mean to be part of this generation, the first generation that's going to do worse than our parents did."

But maybe it isn't Millennials who are so cursed.  From a 1999 edition of the Atlantic: " In fact, Xers may well be the first generation whose lifetime earnings will be less than their parents'."

I knew I'd heard it somewhere before. "The first generation to do worse than their parents." It's a line from Douglas Coupland's Generation X, published in 1991. It was my bible; I used that line as an excuse for not getting a job the summer I graduated into the deepest recession in Canada in a decade. Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton used the line when he announced his run for president in 1991: "I refuse to stand by and let our children become part of the first generation to do worse than their parents".

But hold the phone, Xers! Put down that copy of Trainspotting! You don't have a monopoly on intergenerational indignation. Here's a line from a 1980 Newsweek report on "An Economic Dream in Peril": 

"And no longer do Americans share the great expectations of generations past. For the first time, public-opinion polls show that the average U.S. citizen is not at all sure that his children's lot will be better than – or even as good as – his own."

But at least we can agree on one thing: Whoever is doing worse, the baby boomers made out like bandits. Since they drank everyone's milkshake in the sixties and seventies, every generation since has been doing crappier and crappier. Right? Surely we can get all Soylent Green on the people who gave us Freedom 55 and Zoomer magazine?

Maybe not. According to the March 2011 New York Times: "The baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents."

Welcome to the Occupation


In many ways, the most remarkable thing about the global Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protests is that they haven’t happened sooner. It has been a full decade since the anti-globalization movement imploded in a mess of its own internal contradictions, and I am honestly surprised that left has taken so long to self-organize into another mass protest movement. I would have expected that the knee-capping of the world economy three years ago and the subsequent decision to make everyone except those primarily responsible bear the brunt of the pain would have catalyzed some sort of march on the plutocracy. 

Perhaps the left was biding its time waiting to see what Obama might bring to the table.  Perhaps it was wrong-footed by the Tea Party, which stole a march on the whole idea by taking to the streets from from the other side. Maybe it was still too busy with the wrong-headed troops-out campaign against the war in Afghanistan. And maybe this is exactly the sort of unrest that lots of smart people have predicting would be the consequence of unchecked growth in inequality. At any rate, no one should be too surprised at what is going on: by the mere swing of the pendulum, we were due for a gathering of the left-wing tribes.

Overall,  my views on the usefulness of this sort of protest have not changed much since The Rebel Sell. But my general disdain is leavened in this case by three thoughts. The first is that inequality is a growing problem that all of us need to pay more attention to. And second: to the extent that inequality is magnified by a financial elite that has effectively discovered a way to game the American banking system, then Wall Street is the right and proper target of mass protest.

But finally, and maybe primarily, I'm increasingly inclined to think that regular mass public gatherings are useful for their own sake. Since Canadian prime ministers both Liberal (Jean Chretien: APEC Vancouver 1997) and Conservative (Stephen Harper: G20 Toronto, 2010) have no problem spitting on the constitution and unleashing the full and illegal power of the state against protesters when it suits them, it is probably valuable to assert the right to freedom of assembly pretty much whenever it pleases, for whatever reason at all. 

With that throat-clearing out of the way, here are some pieces  -- some by me, some by people a lot smarter than me – that I think help put the protests in a wider intellectual frame.

An essay by Joe Heath on why the banks didn’t actually go crazy.

An article I wrote last year for Canadian Business on the hard problem of inequality, and a follow up blog post exploring why it’s even harder than I thought.

Trent history prof Robert Wright situates the #OWS movement within the longer traditions of left-wing popular protest.

A column by me for the Ottawa Citizen on what it will take for the protests to be successful.

An excellent analysis by the economics professor Mike Moffat on why the 99 percent don’t really want to fix inequality.

 A thinkier sort of column I wrote on why governments are suddenly so keen to talk about happiness instead of economic growth.

Finally, I'm quoted in this story for the Canadian Press about the intellectual origins of #OWS. And Joe Heath gets a look-in at the end of this story about how Mark Carney called the protests constructive.



Annals of Stunt Leftism

Photo: Pat McGrath, the Ottawa Citizen

Perhaps feeling a bit put-out by the media attention being (finally) devoted to the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS, for those on Twitter) movement, an alliance of Canadian and European anti-free trade activists wheeled a Trojan Horse up to the gates of Parliament Hill in Ottawa today. In case the point of the action was lost on those not versed in Greek mythology, or perhaps those who have been struck on the head by a large rock, Canada's celebrity trade opponent Maude Barlow was on hand to explain why Canada and the EU should not have a trade pact.

"Just like the Trojan horse behind me, this trade deal carries huge threats," Barlow said.

In response to the appearance of the 14-foot high theatre prop, Gerald Keddy, parliamentary secretary to Canada's Trade Minister Ed Fast, admitted that he finally understood why the trade deal was so wrong-headed. "I was a big supporter of free trade with the EU until I saw that horse coming up Wellington Street," Keddy said.

"Only now, thanks to this literal Trojan Horse, do I understand that a trade deal is a metaphorical 'trojan horse' introduced into the Canadian economy," he went on. "I wish to thank Ms. Barlow, and her European co-protesters, for bringing this to my attention in such an unmistakable manner. I will be consulting with Mr. Fast and advising him of my opinions immediately."

I kid. He actually dismissed the concerns as being raised by "special interest groups ideologically opposed to free trade."



A Local economy yes, but only if it's hip

Over the course of what could have been just a routine column about gentrification, transit, and the demise of local manufacturing, Ginia Bellafonte of the NYT takes the argument over the future of the Brooklyn Navy Yards to a very interesting place:

The value of a well-maintained and high-functioning public transit system — vital to people, vital to the economic ecosystem — would seem self-evident; the value of ambitious job creation, equally so. In a sense, another obstacle to these plans is cultural: the romance much of the country still has with American manufacturing doesn’t really hold sway in New York, where love affairs, now, are more likely to be forged with the artisanal pickler, the imaginative sausage-maker, the émigré in Red Hook who would seem to possess a doctorate in mahogany. New York would do well to revitalize (and glamorize) old-school labor; the city should feel more hospitable to working people than it looks.



Welcome to the desert of the young

From silver jumpsuits to feather-haired space-babes, seventies sci-fi got the future wrong in any number of ways. But perhaps the most laughable prediction is that western society would suffer from gross overpopulation, which would force us to either euthanise anyone except the young (e.g. Logan's Run), or turn the extra people into food (e.g. Soylent Green). What has come to pass is something far more sinister, viz., a nearly child-free gerontocracy where the entire productive capacity of society is directed towards the needs of the aged, while children are hounded from the streets and playgrounds by Baby Boomers in search of late-model forms of self-actualization.


You don't have to live in Japan to see where things are headed; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada will do just fine. Last week was back-to-school – which once was celebrated as the time when the fruit of our collective loins would go off to play and learn and generally become socialized into our cultural norms, so that they could grow up and get jobs and have kids and keep us in our own, inevitable dotage. But in Ottawa, a group of sour-faced old-timers decided that the mere sight of children on their way to school was an affront to their preferred lifestyle.


The residents of Farincourt Crescent, an “adult lifestyle” housing development in the city's east end, were outraged at the parade of school buses (NINE of them!) that used the crescent each day. No kids were being picked up mind you, they were just turning around. One of the residents, Pat Carriere, had this to say:


“We feel that as an adult lifestyle community we should be allowed that peace of mind,” Carriere said. “Our children are grown up, we’ve lived through this.”

But Carriere insists that her group does not want to be seen as anti-child. Not at all:

“We don’t want to be seen as crotchety old grey-haired people,” she said. “We bought into this lifestyle. We paid extra money for it and we feel we deserve our peace and quiet now.”


Except that's the precise definition of being anti-child, namely, that you will pay money to keep them out of sight, and are willing to even picket the buses to keep them off your street. Even if that street is actually a public roadway, as Farincourt Crescent is.


My colleague at the Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely, thinks that while the anti-kid sentiment is unpleasant, perhaps the city should try to find some way of meeting the demands of the adult-lifestyle crowd. I'm not so sure. The demographic crisis that we are heading into is probably the single most serious problem that we face. The view that kids are just another lifestyle choice, and one favoured by an unpleasant minority at that, is one that needs to be cut off at the knees.


As our population ages, we are becoming extraordinarily risk averse. To see this in action, go to any playground and watch the helicopter parents hovering around Schuyler and Banjo as they bump their kiddie bike helmets against the soft sand of the playground. Increasingly, this deep-seated aversion to risk is permeating the culture, with entrepreneurialism and adventurousness giving way to a fixation on comfort and security. People approaching retirement are less keen on long-term or volatile investments, and to the extent that the economy of the future will be built on creativity, flexibility and innovation, the absence of high-risk venture capital will make us more rigid and brittle. Eventually, our entire social infrastructure will tilt toward the needs of the elderly; spend an hour watching the ads on the CBC and you can see that soon enough the only growth industries will be life insurance, reverse mortagages, and cures for erectile dysfunction and incontinence.

By mid-century, this continent will be a de facto gerontocracy. For the few children who do manage to make an appearance, living here will be like one long visit to grandma and grandpa's house. Remember what that was like? All the attention was nice, and it was fun to get a handful of sweets or a ride in the old clunker.

But the place smelled a bit strange, and the environment was really not all that welcoming to kids. Fun as it was, it was always a relief to leave. Where the kids of 2050 will escape to, when the whole country is one big retirement village, is anyone's guess.



On the true true

I asked Meronym if the Abbess spoke true, when she said the Hole World flies round the sun, or if the Men o' Hilo was true sayin' the sun flies round the Hole World.

Abbess is quite correct, answered Meronym.

Then the true true is different to the seemin' true? said I.

Yay, an' it usually is, I mem'ry Meronym sayin', an' that's why true true is presher'n'rarer'n diamonds.


David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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