A Little Explanation

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I’ve been writing some heavier posts lately.  Pete has been proofreading them for me and he thinks that I should explain where these posts have been coming from.

You see, I struggle with self-doubt and with the idea that my writing is banal.  When I was in second-year university, a professor wrote this scathing word on one of my papers and it has haunted me ever since.  Looking back, that paper was banal.  I phoned it in.  But for some reason, his critique stuck with me.  I seem to have applied the crushing label “banal” to all my writing ever since.

Photo via thehothands.org

So, when I felt I had been posting too many recipes or lists of books that I’ve read (boring!) I decided to write about politics and current events.  I am a political science grad after all, and minimal-fee-paying member of the Canadian Political Science Association (don’t tell them I’m no longer a student!)

Anyway, whenever Pete reads my heavier posts, he always says: “Well, I think it’s really interesting and well-written, but probably no one is going to read it.”  Which is likely true, with the exception of my mom and sister.  But that’s okay.  I’ll post another recipe shortly and drive traffic up.  And I’m hoping, after they’ve jotted down the ingredients, that they might stick around and read about One Billion Rising.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Michelle Obama and the role of First Lady

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Barack Obama’s second inauguration took place nearly a month ago, and I’ve been mulling over a blog post ever since.  It struck me at the time that the news media were focusing on elements of the event that were of no real importance.  That’s not surprising.  The 24/7 news cycle has reduced many newsworthy stories into tiny soundbites for rapid consumption.  But I was still disappointed to see that one of the topics the television media could not seem to stop discussing had to do with Michelle Obama’s appearance.  Michelle Obama, you see, now has bangs.

Michelle-Obama-Inauguration-Jason-Wu

This fascination is nothing new.  Television journalists, talk show hosts, and bloggers alike have been talking about Michelle Obama’s hair, her wardrobe and her toned arms for more than four years now.  And I’m certainly not going to argue that Michelle Obama isn’t beautiful, fashionable or fit.  She is all of those things.  But when we focus on Michelle Obama’s looks, what we are ignoring are her accomplishments.  We are not discussing her intellect.  And we are most definitely not discussing her role in U.S. politics.

This phenomenon is not unique to the current First Lady.  Hillary Clinton was routinely mocked for her pantsuits and hairbands during her husband’s time in office.  Even while serving as a profoundly effective, and well-respected, Secretary of State, her appearance was regularly subject to ridicule.

Although there are clearly many elements at play here, I would argue that part of the problem is the very role of First Lady.  The fact that there is an official position reserved for the (female) spouse of the President is part of what reduces Michelle Obama to her wardrobe or her hair.  Because a U.S. President’s wife is expected to fulfill so many official duties, she is required to abandon her career (Michelle Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer) in order to support her husband in his presidential role.

In Canada, the wife of the Prime Minister is much less visible than the U.S. First Lady.  Part of this has to do with our constitutional monarchy: our governor-general (who represents the Queen) performs ceremonial duties that are often carried out by the U.S. President and First Lady in America.  The result is that the Prime Minister’s wife is not the most visible woman in Canadian politics.  In fact, Laureen Harper keeps a rather low profile.  Our long-serving former PM, Jean Chretien, had (and still has) a very private spouse.  Many Canadians had difficulty even coming up with Aline Chretien’s first name (that is, until she confronted an intruder at 24 Sussex while the PM slept).

My point is this: when the most visible woman in a country’s politics is the leader’s wife, her role as spouse (or mom-in-chief) inevitably overshadows her own professional accomplishments, her intellect, or her political potential.  And this makes it seem much more acceptable to discuss what she is wearing, rather than what she has to say.

Two Tired Parents Go to a Lecture

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Last night, Pete and I went to a lecture at the Craigleith Ski Club.  It was organized by the Georgian Triangle Lifelong Learning Institute.  The GTLLI offers courses to members (mostly retirees) wanting to expand their horizons, but once a year, they put on a special event like this one.  In 2011, when I was pregnant with C, we went to a lecture by former Canadian ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker (who was one of my professors in grad school) and we were, by far, the youngest people there.  Still, it was a fantastic lecture and there were very delicious snacks afterwards.

We were excited to get tickets to this year’s event.  This time, we were not the youngest people there (damn you, hip twenty-something couple!) but we felt like we might be the exhaustedest (not a real word).  You might argue that octogenarians are likely more tired than even the most frazzled new parents, but we were the first people rushing out of the ski club so that we could be in bed by 9:15.  So, I stand by my statement.

Last night’s lecture was by CBC journalist Brian Stewart, who was a foreign correspondent for decades and is perhaps best known for his coverage of the Ethiopian famine.  His CBC crew introduced the world to Birhan Woldu, the little girl who would become the face of the famine.

Birhan Woldu in 1984; Brian Stewart; Birhan Woldu in 2004.
Photos via Make Poverty History

Stewart’s lecture, Hope Out of Ruins: Human Endurance in an Age of Crises, was an optimistic take on the state of the world.  Stewart believes that despite what the media would have us believe, there has never been a period in human history with more stability, tolerance and peace than this one.  Coming from a man who has covered some of the most devastating catastrophes of the last several decades, it was an uplifting message.  Stewart was careful, however, to warn that our 24/7 news cycle and short attention spans are compromising our ability to understand our world.

For instance, we are more likely to think that crime rates are rising in this country, when they are, in fact, falling.  When the news media cover violent crimes, they don’t point out that such crimes are rare.  The fact that they are rare is the reason why they are being featured on the news in the first place.  An event is considered “newsworthy” when it is extraordinary.  I used to use this famous example when teaching my policing students about crime rates: if 1 airplane out of 10,000 leaving a particular airport crashes, the headline will not be “9,999 planes land safely.”  This is by no means a critique of the news media, it simply illustrates that we see the noteworthy, extraordinary events on the news.  The problem with this is that we become so accustomed to seeing these events nightly that we begin to think that they are a lot more commonplace than they are.  By every measure currently in use, crime rates have been steadily falling in Canada for several years.  Yet the high-profile shootings in Toronto and the horrific case of alleged murderer Luka Rocco Magnotta lead the public to believe we’re living in a more violent time.

Brian Stewart pointed out that we are facing a dilemma.  We are living in a relatively stable, peaceful time, but we are more pessimistic and cynical because of our constant exposure to negative media coverage of current events.

Stewart mentioned dozens of encouraging developments, the fact that dictatorships have fallen across most of Europe and much of South America, that all but one African country hold elections, and that human rights are increasingly respected while our tolerance for war has markedly diminished.  What to do about this cynicism was left for us to ponder.

It was a great evening; an intellectually stimulating date night.  And we were in bed by 9:30.