Monthly Archives: September 2011

Levant, Harper and “Ethical Oil”’s campaign against Saudi Arabian oil with a message that is very simple: Muslims bad, Alberta good. This ad began appearing last week. 

Frye in “The Present Condition of the World” (1943) observes that North America is “a happy-hunting-ground of all forms of advertisement, propaganda, and suggestions. Advertising and ‘publicity’ are based on the fact that sense experience is involuntary and on the assumption that the mind does not possess enough selective power to resist a large number of repeated impressions.” (CW 10, 212)

As an illustration of the continuing relevance of this principle, Stephen Harper has taken to referring to Alberta’s tar sands as “ethical oil,” which also happens to be the title of a book by Ezra Levant, as well as the name of the oil advocacy group responsible for the television ad above.

Ezra Levant is a well-known right-wing activist with a connection to Harper dating back twenty years. Levant has been the subject of a number of lawsuits for libel. Most recently, he repeated in a column in the Toronto Sun a long-disproven slur against Holocaust survivor and wealthy liberal advocate George Soros. Sun Media was made to retract and apologize when confronted with the possibility of yet another Levant-centred libel suit. Levant is, moreover, a protege of Koch Industries, an oil production conglomerate which, among many other things, bankrolls global warming denialism.

His book, Ethical Oil, is morally idiotic. In it he makes the argument that the tar sands produce “ethical” oil because it comes from a nice place like Alberta, rather than from a nasty and unethical place like Saudi Arabia. The promotion of the idea of ethical oil is demagoguery that trades on resentment and ignorance while conveniently leaving out every other consideration, including a noxiously hypocritical self-interest, as well as the fact that, whatever else happens, we’re still going to be doing business with the dirty Arabs the ad above demonizes. Even so, the term has been adopted by Stephen Harper personally, and at just the time that the Keystone XL pipeline is awaiting American approval.

You can read David Suzuki’s review of Levant’s book here. A sample:

If this is the most “ethical” source of oil we can find, we need to ask other questions about the moral purity of our intensively processed bitumen. For example, if we sell the oil to countries with poor human-rights records, like China, does that affect the product’s “ethical” nature? And how “ethical” are the companies operating in the oilsands: for example, Exxon Mobil, well-known sponsor of climate-change disinformation campaigns; BP, responsible for last year’s massive oily disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or PetroChina? There’s also the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on our children and grandchildren, which to me is an intergenerational crime.

It is distressing to see this dangerous notion being intravenously introduced into the public discourse by what seems to be a carefully-timed, co-ordinated effort. That Harper would use his office to shill so openly for it makes it that much more alarming.

Nirvana and Third Wave Feminism

Two of the anarchist cheerleaders from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” between takes

Amanda Marcotte, on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nevermind, considers Nirvana’s feminist legacy.

Nirvana’s opening salvo in its assault on mainstream rock, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” did more than just wash away any musical relevance of bands like Poison and Winger, but it also laid waste to the sexism that fueled so much hair metal and other dude-centric hard rock. The first human faces you see in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” belong not to the band members, but to a group of heavily tattooed women dressed like anarchist cheerleaders, a swift but brutal rebuttal to all the images of acceptable femininity that your average suburban teenager lived with at the time. Forget the hair metal groupies or the bubbly beauty queen cheerleaders. For girls watching this video, it was a revelation: You could instead choose to be a badass.

The cheerleaders were just a taste of what Kurt Cobain had up his sleeve when it came to subverting traditional gender roles. It wasn’t just the kick-ass women in this one video. Nirvana baked feminist ideas right into their lyrics and image. Nirvana had songs like “Polly,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “Breed,” which dealt directly with gender issues from a pro-feminist perspective, and songs like “About a Girl” and “All Apologies,” which employed a layered, nuanced understanding of love and gender. Alison, 31, who reached out through Twitter, marveled at the gap between Nirvana and the bands like Warrant that came before it, saying, “So much of the music made by men at the time that was popular was all about how women were basically just holes to fuck,” adding that Cobain, “felt like a guy who viewed women as people.”


Nirvana’s feminism stemmed directly from the Northwest rock scene that birthed the band. Even though they were associated with Seattle, NPR’s music critic Ann Powers noted, “They came out of Olympia, a much different scene, more female-dominated.” Riot grrrl—a subgenre of punk rock that focused on empowering girls to speak out on feminist topics such as reproductive rights and sexual violence—sprang from the same circles as Nirvana, and Cobain made friends with famous riot grrrls Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna, who inadvertently gave Cobain the title idea for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” Powers said, arguing that the riot grrrls “were important to him.” Fans of both Nirvana and riot grrrl agree. Kate described Nirvana as “a riot grrrl band, basically.” Tara, who was living in Alabama when she discovered Nirvana, particularly admired the riot grrrl connection, saying, “The thing I really loved about that was it didn’t seem like a stunt. They ran with the riot grrrl crowd out of genuine admiration for them and what they stood for.”


For fans, Nirvana often proved a gateway drug to discovering music that had female musicians to go right along with the feminist sentiments. Tara cited Nirvana as the reason she fell hard for alternative rock, bringing her to Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Hole, and Babes in Toyland. Mickey, a Seattle native, was already a fan of many female-led punk bands, but felt Nirvana broadened her horizons. “I probably became aware of bands like L7, Sleater-Kinney, and of course, Hole, through my love of Nirvana.” Alison, who described herself as growing up in a “basic, bland suburb,” also discovered L7, Hole, and Bikini Kill through Nirvana, but felt that loving Nirvana primed you to listen to feminist musicians outside of their direct sphere of influence. She suggested that the pride Nirvana gave to outcasts and weirdos “eventually led to a more specific validation that being a woman was fine, too,” adding that this shot of feminist pride “made me more inclined to seek out strong women in areas like music, literature, etc.”

Full article here.

(Photo: Shelli Hyrkas and Experience Music Project)

Occupy Wall Street

“Hope is what divides those who see the leap in the dark as the end of things from those who see it also as a new beginning.” “The Leap in the Dark,” (CW 4, 304)

It’s getting no coverage in the mainstream media, but hundreds of young people are in the eighth day of an organized protest on Wall Street.

The generation coming up behind us has has been so completely abused — obscenely high costs for post-secondary education leaving them tens of thousands of dollars in debt while facing a stagnant job market — that we may see much much more of this and for some time to come.

It’s worth noting that, while the mainstream media have not covered the event, the organizers and participants have likewise shut out the mainstream media. Young people overwhelmingly do not watch network or cable news and do not read “family newspapers.” That means they largely live outside the ludicrous narratives that now make up the “news”: petty scandals, smirking gossip, and, worst of all, politics that are presented as nothing more than self-defeating cycles of “some say this, some say that,” and all of it suffused with unchecked lies. This makes these young people very threatening indeed; unlike too many of their elders, they are not politically and socially narcoleptic. They have their own agenda, which tends to be liberal to an extent that terrifies conservatives, and they have their own sources of information and channels of communication.

Whatever conservatives think they’re doing, it’s doomed in the long run, and at some level they know it. In ten years these young people will more or less have the run of things as the baby boomers die off in greater and greater numbers. Good luck stopping them then.

The Village Voice has an update.  OccupyWallStreet website here.

Frye Quote of the Day: “Free speech is the one thing a mob can’t stand”

The Harper government does not like the press (Sun Media excepted), does not like its political opposition, does not like critics, does not even, it appears, like free speech that extends to any of these. As we’ve seen, the Conservatives are willing to go to great trouble to suppress videos of Stephen Harper in order to keep them away from a wider audience that might not be as sympathetic to the contents.

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

I don’t see how the study of language and literature can be separated from the question of free speech, which we all know is fundamental to our society. The area of ordinary speech, as I see it, is a battleground between two forms of social speech: the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliche, ready-made ideas, and automatic babble, and it leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob: free speech is one thing a mob can’t stand. You notice that the people who allow their fear of Communism to become hysterical eventually get to screaming that every sane man is a Communist. (CW 21, 490-1)

“One might. One might. But time will not relent.”

R.E.M. called it quits this week after 31 years, and today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

I’ve posted it before, but the R.E.M. video above is worth posting again, partly because it’s a humbling reminder of how unmerciful changing fashions can be (poor Michael Stipe: look at that hat), but mostly because it’s a joyful song and because Kate Pierson of the B52s is the other half of the duet.

Nirvana’s Nevermind was the grunge movement’s equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In other words, take your pick of songs, any one will do. But I can’t resist going with the most obvious choice, below. Seeing that the kids in the video look the way kids still do today is a pleasant surprise. The extensive tattooing was still new then.

The post’s title is the last line of Wallace Stevens’ “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad.”

Harper’s Suppressed “Hat Trick” Video, Cont’d


Well, that didn’t take long. We’d barely got the video up in the post below and it was scrubbed from the YouTube account hosting it. Thanks to the people who posted comments to provide more information and alternative sites still carrying the video.

It’s a small issue, but that’s what makes it all that much more telling. Look at the trouble the Conservatives are taking to make this video disappear. The effort says much much more than the video itself. This is control for the sake of control. And we’re just a few weeks into this new majority government.

More nonsense is on the way — the tar sands are being rebranded as “ethical oil” (I’ll have more on that shortly), and then there’s that massive crime bill which seems intended to replicate the Americans’ failed correctional policies, as well as mimic their unwarranted surveillance of citizens. The television ad campaigns have begun again. That, we’ve learned, is always an ominous sign.

We’ll make a point of following the fortunes of this video for the next little while. I’ve reposted it by way of another YouTube account. If that account is scrubbed, we’ll find another, and post that too.

Harper’s Suppressed “Hat Trick” Video


At just the time the Conservatives are looking to impose unwarranted internet surveillance upon Canadian citizens, they are evidently also trying to suppress YouTube videos that embarrass them, like the one above. This kind of political double-standard is now pretty much standard issue. Conservatives it seems only talk to one another and are only to be heard by other conservatives. It’s the kind of cowardice that can usually be found lurking behind much guffawing bluster.

God knows what Harper means by his reference to “cleaning up the left wing mess.” His government pissed away the surplus left to them by the Liberals and have run up record deficits ever since. (Like the Republicans, Harper’s Conservatives are vaunted in the business press as “the party of fiscal responsibility” despite astounding feats of fiscal irresponsibility.) There is a smugly triumphal, vanquish-all-enemies taint to Conservative partisanship which is always just one open microphone away, and it appears to be exactly the kind of thing they don’t want the 61% of Canadians who don’t vote Conservative to be reminded of. There seems to be a concerted effort to create a memory hole into which all this trash talk can be dumped. It may just be a coincidence, but try, for example, to find the video we’ve posted here before of Harper at an anti-gay marriage rally on Parliament Hill where he gave full-throated praise to “real Canadian values.” It’s gone (although a couple of tantalizing snippets of it survive embedded in other video compilations). I’ve noticed that other video of Harper we’ve posted in the past has also gone dark. Given that the Conservatives are now dispatching lawyers to force the take down of video they don’t want seen, maybe that’s a trend that will only intensify. It’s a familiar enough authoritarian trait: they want more access to our private lives, while also restricting our public access to them. It is, as Lawrence Martin puts it, the politics of control.

The good news is that the Conservatives are not likely to get their wished-for “hat trick” with the upcoming Ontario provincial election. Rob Ford in Toronto and Stephen Harper in Ottawa are probably more than enough for Ontario voters at this point.

In any event, see the video above while you can. If this one comes down, we’ll try to find other sources for it.

Video of the Day: “The Underlying Social Contract”


I picked up the buzz about this video of Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail in Massachusetts a couple of days ago and thought I’d post it at the end of the week. Now I find that I’m an also-ran as it begins to pop up everywhere. Even Rush Limbaugh has lumbered onto the scene, pre-emptively declaring Warren a “parasite.” She scares the insurrectionist right already, with the election still fourteen months away. It’s no wonder why.

If you haven’t already seen this video, you’ll be glad you did. This is what a “liberal narrative” sounds like (everybody’s citing what she says beginning at the 50 second mark). It’s so damn simple that it’s hard to imagine why liberal politicians haven’t been able to find it for the last three decades. If Obama had simply picked up the thread Warren follows here, he’d probably have a very different presidency today: one continuously refreshed by the hope he promised instead of deeply compromised and perpetually demoralized by the double-dealing of political nihilists. To know hope is to be able to speak a great truth with simple clarity.

Previous posts on Warren here and here.

Christian Love

Stephen Harper — who walked away from Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — appears in a billboard campaign in Copenhagen, 2009

Our last few posts make this a good time to return to our ongoing “Frye on God” thread. Conservative politicians are the most likely to declare themselves Christians, but they are also the most likely to be missing any sense of Christian charity, especially with regard to the poor and the sick. Stephen Harper’s repetitions of “God bless Canada” do not otherwise appear to display much concern for the welfare of fellow Canadians in need, or for the vast expanses of nature that make up the Canadian landscape. Evangelical Christians, in fact, seem to possess a reckless disregard for the environment. Like other North American conservatives, they deny global warming in large numbers despite a virtually unanimous scientific consensus on the issue. Because big oil interests spend tens of millions of dollars every year to fund global warming denialism, it evidently is possible to serve both God and Mammon if you have a mind to do so. It’s as though a peculiar strain of Christian conservatism believes that, with the End Times coming, it doesn’t matter how much damage is inflicted along the way. As Tina Fey in her most recent rendering of Sarah Palin nicely put it, “I believe that global warming is just Jesus holding us closer.”

Those who cite the Bible as a strict source of authority often seem to have no idea what they’re talking about. The limit of their understanding is usually love. Here’s Frye in “On the Bible”:

[T]he response which the Bible itself insists on, the response of the spirit, is bound up with the conception of love, a word which perhaps means too many things in modern languages and may have rather a sentimental sound. But in the New Testament love is regarded not as one virtue among others but as the only virtue there is, and one which is possible only to God and to the spirit of man, a virtue which, in Paul’s language, believes and hopes everything [1 Corinthians 13:7], and thereby includes all the other virtues because, outside the order of love, faith and hope are not necessarily virtues at all. (CW 4, 164)

Frye Quote of the Day: “We are the grave robbers of our own resources”

The Keystone XL pipeline, where the Harper government meets Koch Industries. At this point, only Obama stands between them. From Rolling Stone:

Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That’s the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Greenlighting the $7 billion pipeline would help feed America’s addiction to oil – but it would also send a clear signal that Obama ranks cheap gas as a higher priority than a stable climate. Activist and writer Bill McKibben, who organized protests at the White House to stop the pipeline, calls the decision “a defining moment of the Obama years.”

There are two big problems with Keystone XL. First, mining and refining the tar sands of Alberta – the second-largest repository of carbon on the planet – requires huge amounts of energy. That’s why carbon pollution from tar-sand oil is up to 20 percent higher than from conventional crude. If we burn through the tar sands, warns NASA expert James Hansen, it’s “game over” for the climate. Second, an oil spill from the pipeline could devastate the Midwest: A recent study by the University of Nebraska estimates that a worst-case spill in the Platte River would create an oil slick that would stretch for hundreds of miles and contaminate drinking water for millions of Americans.

There are signs the pipeline may already be a done deal: The State Department’s environmental review of the project recently concluded that the pipeline would have “no significant impacts.” But Obama can still stop the project all by himself, simply by refusing to sign the certificate of national interest required to allow the pipeline to cross the U.S. border. But blocking Keystone XL means saying no to Big Oil. Among the companies with the most to gain if the pipeline is built: Koch Industries, a major backer of the Tea Party. To put pressure on the State Department, which must sign off on the pipeline, Keystone’s operator has hired the former deputy director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as a lead lobbyist.

Environmental choices don’t get much starker than this. “Obama is alone at the top of the key,” McKibben recently wrote. “Will he take the 20-foot jumper – or pass the ball?”

Frye in “Canada: New World without Revolution”:

Canada, with four million square miles and only four centuries of documented history, has naturally been a country more preoccupied with space than with time, with environment rather than tradition.  The older generation, to which I have finally been assigned, was brought up to think of Canada as a land of unlimited natural resources, an unloving but rich earth-mother bulging with endless supplies of nickel and asbestos, or, in her softer parts, with the kind of soil that would allow of huge grain and lumber surpluses.  The result of such assumptions is that many of our major social problems are those of ecology, the extinction of animal species, the plundering of forests and mines, the pollution of water, as the hundreds of millions of years that nature took to build up our supplies of coal and oil are cancelled out in a generation or two.  The archaeologists who explore royal tombs in Egypt and Mesopotamia find that they are almost always anticipated by grave robbers, people who got there first because they had better reasons for doing so than the acquisition of knowledge.  We are the grave robbers of our own resources, and posterity will not be grateful to us. (CW 12, 435-6)

An earlier post on the Keystone XL protests here.