Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Case for Individual Reparations

Until I read Ta Nahesi Coates’ now-classic article “The Case for Reparations” (published in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic), I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that the beneficiaries of slavery—and of the decades of Jim Crow exploitation as well—should pay reparations to the victims and their descendants. It was tucked it away on that top shelf of the mental closet we reserve for ideas we class as unrealistic, impractical. We acknowledge they might have something to be said for them as a matter of moral principle, but we feel instinctively that, realistically, practically, nothing could possibly be done for the foreseeable future.

Ending slavery was once an idea like that. So was giving women the vote.

When I read Coates’ article I was immediately persuaded that reparations were justified. But as I discovered, raising the topic of government-sponsored reparations tends to be a conversation-stopper. Many prefer to discuss not whether or not reparations are justified, but whether or not people should be forced to pay reparations; that second question is one they feel confident answering no to. And there the matter rests.

Plainly, government-funded reparations will not be politically possible for the foreseeable future. One might as well imagine the American government ending all its subsidies to the factory-farming of animals and encouraging us all to go vegan. Perhaps it should happen, but we all know it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Does that mean that, as individuals, we’re helpless? Far from it. Why wait for governmental action when we can act now, as individuals, to make reparations?

I’m not the only one to have had this idea. Michael Eric Dyson, for one, in Tears We Cannot Stop, suggests that individual white Americans keep their own “individual reparations” accounts by making appropriate donations.

This past year I put the idea into practice. In the spring of 2008 I had bought a small house in the Bywater area of New Orleans, with the thought of one day being able to live in the little back unit, at least for part of the year. I rented both units out, and the years went by. By 2017 it was clear my idea of living there for much of the year would never happen. My partner and I were quite happy in a different little house—on Vancouver Island, a very long way from New Orleans. I sold the property last December. I’d owned it for nearly ten years, and the house had of course appreciated. On reflection it seemed to me that about one quarter of the capital gain was an amount I felt comfortable in paying in reparations, and I sent a check for $7,500 to a worthy non-profit dedicated to increasing opportunities for African Americans. Is a quarter of the capital gain in fact the most appropriate amount? Probably a higher percentage would be more appropriate. But at least it’s a start—and I’m absolutely persuaded that this sort of contribution is the right thing to do.

It’s the right sort of thing to do in terms of my own past history. I’m Canadian, but my great grandfather lived in New Orleans from 1838-1849; it’s impossible to imagine that, as a white person living in New Orleans at that time, he did not benefit significantly from slavery.

It’s also the right thing to do in the context of a large transaction involving a transfer of assets. Even more striking than how disadvantaged African Americans have been in terms of wage levels are the disparities in wealth. Whereas white North Americans have typically been able to pass on wealth generation after generation, and thereby start small businesses and buy houses, African Americans have been heavily and consistently disadvantaged in terms of wealth. For that reason I think it’s particularly appropriate to think of reparations at times when those of us who have been privileged are receiving the proceeds of a capital gain. (I should emphasize here that, much as whites as a whole have been advantaged in North America, there are of course some whites who have never been and will never be privileged recipients of a capital gain, from a real estate transaction or from any other source; the argument I am making here about making voluntary reparations should apply only to those with the means to consider that course of action.)

Again, I’m not suggesting that anyone be forced to pay any amount at all in reparations. In most cases, reparations should be something humans want to make, not something we are forced to make. But as to whether or not those of us with the means to do so should do so? I urge you to read Coates’ extraordinary article.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why Eggs and Ham Are Not Green--and Why a Plant-Based Diet is the Best Thing We Can Do fior the Planet

What does it mean to be green? At it simplest, being green surely means to support policies—and, at a personal level, to adopt habits of behavior—that are good for the planet.

Increasingly, researchers are concluding that the biggest single thing human animals can do for the planet is, at a personal level, to stop eating other animals—and, at a government level, to stop providing billions in subsidies to those sectors of the food industry that turn non-human animals (and their milk and eggs) into human food. Results of the most broadly-based study to date were published earlier this year in Science; the study, led by Joseph Poore of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, has the unappetizing title of “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.” Its conclusion? “Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s GHG emissions by 49%....” For a developed nation, “dietary change has the potential for a far greater effect on food’s different emissions,” reducing them by as much as 73%. Poore used more direct language when interviewed by The Guardian: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth—not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

It’s no secret that the byproducts of large-scale agribusiness include large-scale pollution of the traditional sort. In recent years researchers have begun to appreciate as well the extent to which large-scale agriculture contributes to climate change. That’s not only—or even mainly—the result of methane emissions from the obvious sources (emissions from the rear ends of cows and pigs, emissions from slaughterhouse effluent, etc.). It’s also the result of deforestation; to the extent that we choose to eat animal products, far more forest needs to be turned into farmland than would be the case if we adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Animal agriculture is fundamentally inefficient: rather than grow crops to feed humans directly, we devote massive amounts of land and of energy to growing crops to feed animals that will later be killed and fed to humans. “Meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use 83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56-58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories,” the Oxford study reports.

But aren’t eating local, and eating meat or cheese from organically certified farms just as good for the environment as going vegan? No, is the short answer. To be sure, obtaining our nourishment from organic meat or dairy is better than obtaining it from factory-farmed meat or dairy—but the Oxford study confirms that it’s far worse than obtaining our nourishment from beans, greens, nuts, and fruit; in the long run, even organic animal agriculture is simply not sustainable. Poore provided a personal perspective in his interview with The Guardian: “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project.” Given all the evidence, you’d think that every Green Party would have made eliminating subsidies to animal agriculture a central plank of its platform. You’d expect too a suite of measures designed to encourage us all to adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet—or, at the very least, to greatly reduce our consumption of non-human animals.

If you thought that, you’d be dead wrong. Again and again when it comes to agriculture and food policies, Green Party platforms such as those of Green Party US, the Green Party of Canada (and Green Parties in Canadian provinces), and the UK Green Party tout their support of organic farming and of eating local—and say nothing about discouraging the consumption by humans of animal products. Even Germany’s powerful Green Party—which calls for an end to the “industrial livestock farming within the next 20 years”—does not put forward any set of policies designed to reduce the consumption by humans of non-humans.

Greens, in other words, are not truly green—and conventional mainstream parties that claim to be “green” are no better. Arguably, the only parties with platforms that qualify as truly green are parties such as the tiny Animal Protection Party in Canada, and the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands. That name may sound laughable to some, but the Party for the Animals has several seats in the Dutch Parliament, and it’s largely as a result of their pressure that the Dutch government has become one of the few in the world to make the reduction of meat consumption a goal.

None of this should be taken to suggest that it’s wrong to tax carbon emissions and encourage renewable sources of power generation. But for parties to say they are green and not propose any measures to reduce the human consumption of non-human animals is to ignore—excuse the metaphor—the elephant in the room.

This is one area in which the media are largely ahead of the politicians. Even The Economist—which has had a long track record of either ignoring or ridiculing veganism—recently ran a three-page piece with this heading: “People in rich countries are eating more vegan food. The further they go, the better.” If all the politicians who call themselves “green” could pay a little attention, it might be just in time to save the planet.

Copyright and the 50-Year Rule

Following is the text of a brief I submitted to the parliamentary committee studying copyright. Sadly, in the USMCA negotiations, the Canadian government caved on the 50-year rule; though it will not be enforced retroactively, a 70-years-after-the death rule will go into effect in Canada if that trade deal is approved by all parties. The arguments against, though, seem to me to be still strong; those of us who feel even 50-years-afyter-the-death is too long should keep making them--and perhaps we may yet find legal means to undermine the sway of the large corporations on this issue.
A Brief Submitted to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, August 23, 2018

RE: 2018 Statutory Review of the Copyright Act

Don LePan (CEO and Company Founder, Broadview Press Inc.; Literary Executor, the Estate of D.V. LePan; novelist)

Interest groups continue to pressure the Canadian government to increase the period during which copyright restrictions on written material apply from 50 years after the death of the author to 70 years after the death of the author. It’s pressure that Canada should continue to resist. Let’s think for a moment of how very, very long copyright restrictions already apply in Canada: Leonard Cohen died in 2016; his The Spice-Box of Earth, published in 1961, will not enter the public domain until January 1, 2067—106 years after it was published. Cohen’s now-classic 1966 novel Beautiful Losers will enter the public domain the same year—101 years after it was first published. P.K. Page died in 2010. Her breakthrough book of poetry, The Metal and the Flower, published in 1954, will not enter the public domain until 2060—106 years after it was published.

Mavis Gallant died in 2014. Her breakthrough short story “The Other Paris,” first published in The New Yorker in 1953, will not enter the public domain until 2064—111 years after it was published.

What about the works of authors who are still young or middle-aged today?

Yann Martel was born in 1963, Miriam Toews in 1964; Life of Pi was published in 2001, A Complicated Kindness in 2004. If each lives to at least 85—these days, an average lifespan—those already-classic Canadian novels will not enter the public domain before 2099 (in the case of Martel’s) and 2100 (in the case of Toews).

Terese Marie Mailhot was born in 1983; her memoir Heart Berries was published in 2018. Assuming she lives to at least 85, that acclaimed work will not enter the public domain until 2118—100 years after it was published.

Look at examples such as these, and it’s hard to imagine that the large publishers would like copyright to be extended even further into the future, but such is the case. They’d like to keep “The Other Paris” out of the public domain until 2084—131 years after it was published, and The Spice-Box of Earth out of the public domain until 2087—136 years after it was published.

What practical difference does any of this make? Quite a bit, actually. Copyright protection gives publishers a monopoly for as long as it extends—and with it, monopoly pricing power. As I write this the only in-print edition of Robertson Davies’ famous 1970 novel Fifth Business is a deluxe paperback retailing for $22.00.

By definition, a monopoly also prevents competition. Where classic novels are in the public domain, editions tend to proliferate; readers can choose a deluxe edition or a cheap edition; professors can choose for their students an edition that offers just the text itself or an edition that offers the text together with a range of critical essays (as with the Norton’s Critical Editions series), or an edition that offers the text together with a range of contextualizing historical material (as with the Broadview Editions series).

Because copyright restrictions extend so long, that range of options is simply not available for classics of late twentieth century literature—or even for the literature of mid century. Even with copyright law as it is now, a publisher such as Broadview will not be able to publish “value-added” editions of classics such as Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (Bonheur D’Occasion) or Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel until 2034 and 2038 respectively. If copyright were extended by another 20 years, we’d be prevented from offering those sorts of editions to readers until 2054 and 2058 respectively.

It’s not just works by Canadian authors that are affected by Canadian copyright law, of course. Currently we at Broadview publish a superb edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems. A few years ago the only edition of The Waste Land that was available in Canada was that issued by Faber & Faber, which included no explanatory notes (other than Eliot’s own), no introduction, and no supplementary materials. That edition remains available for those who prefer a bare-bones edition, but now that Eliot’s works have entered the public domain in Canada readers can also choose the Broadview edition, with its wealth of explanatory notes and background materials on modernism—or the excellent Norton Critical edition, with a different set of background materials, or a fine edition from Penguin.

T.S. Eliot died in 1965; if Canadian law mandated 70-years after the death on copyright, Eliot’s 1922 poem would not enter the public domain until 2036—114 years after it was first published!

Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs is another telling example. This 1915 novel was the first to use what came to be known as “stream of consciousness” technique. We at Broadview have published an edition (edited by Canadian scholars Stephen Ross and Tara Thomson) that does a wonderful job of setting this modernist classic in context by including a wide range of background materials alongside the novel itself.

Dorothy Richardson died in 1957; if Canadian law mandated 70-years after the death on copyright, her 1915 novel would not enter the public domain until 2028—113 years after it was first published.

Currently, we at Broadview are looking at publishing “value added” editions of works by a number of authors who have been dead for more than 50 but fewer than 70 years—works such as Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale—the book with which the James Bond series began—and E.M. Forster’s classic 1908 novel A Room with a View; we plan to publish in 2021 editions of both those titles that will include a wealth of background contextual material in addition to the text itself. If Canadian copyright restrictions were extended 20 years beyond their current level, we would be prevented from publishing those editions in Canada until 2035 (in the case of Casino Royale—Fleming died in 1964) and 2041 (in the case of A Room with a View—Forster died in 1970). That last is worth repeating. If copyright restrictions in Canada were extended for a further 20 years beyond their current level, competing editions of Forster’s 1908 novel could not be made available to Canadian readers until 2041—an astonishing 133 years after the book was first published.

It’s often imagined that extending copyright to 70 years beyond an author’s death benefits that author and his or her descendants. More often than not it works in the other direction. To be sure, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the few authors that remain highly popular 50 years or more after their death may receive an undeserved windfall. But the vast majority of works do not remain popular 50 years after the author’s death; they do not even remain in print. Should a publisher wish to try to bring those works back into print, it’s not always easy to do; with decades having elapsed, copyright holders are often very difficult to locate. Neglected authors stand a far better chance of being recovered if their work has entered the public domain.

In saying all this I should make clear that I am not writing simply from the perspective of a publisher of a large series of literary editions. I’m also speaking as the literary executor for my father, Douglas LePan, who won two Governor General’s awards in the 1950s and 1960s, but whose work was receiving little attention by the time he died in 1998. Next year a new selection of his poems will appear from Porcupine’s Quill, and his novel The Deserter will be re-issued by Dundurn Press; neither publication would be possible were it not for my (a) having made information as to the whereabouts of the copyright holder for my father’s Estate readily available, and (b) being willing to ask for virtually nothing by way of royalties, and no advance. It is absolutely in the interests of the author in a case such as this for the author’s heirs to make the work readily available, and virtually free for prospective publishers (who will of course still need to make the usual investments in editing, typesetting, printing, and so on, as well as paying for a new introduction for the re-issue.) To ensure that my father’s literary works remain accessible a generation from now, my preference would be to have those works enter the public domain even before 50 years have elapsed beyond his death. Since Canada is a signatory to the Berne convention I’m sure that’s not likely to happen, but I would hate to see 50 years extended to 70 years.

I’m also writing from the perspective of an author myself. My third novel is projected for 2019; my first, Animals: A Novel, was published in 2009 by VĂ©hicule in Canada and in 2010 Soft Skull/Counterpoint in the US. It was widely acclaimed—Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee called it “a powerful piece of writing and a disturbing call to conscience”—and it received many positive reviews. But already annual sales have slipped significantly. Would I want that book to still be under copyright protection (and thus more difficult for prospective publishers to rediscover and re-issue) more than 50 years after my death? Absolutely not. Even in the highly unlikely event that the existing edition were selling well at that point, I don’t see any reason why the book should decades from now carry a higher price than it would otherwise, merely so that royalties can be paid to my grandchildren.

The interest groups that push for extending copyright even further (and the high-powered media corporations and media lawyers who support them) like to suggest that those who oppose any extension of the 50-year rule in Canada are in a dwindling minority—that inevitably nations such as Canada will have to step into line with the United States and the EU. In fact Canada is far from alone in having resisted the push by the large corporations to extend copyright restrictions further and further. There are approximately 100 nations who have some form of the 50-year rule in their copyright laws—and that list includes some very significant players (among them China, Japan, South Africa, the Philippines, and New Zealand). In Australia a 2017 Commission recommended reducing that country’s length of copyright protection from 70 years to 25 years after the death of the author. At the moment that seems unlikely to happen—but the very fact that it’s been recommended by a reputable group is an indication of the degree to which the tide is starting to turn.

Canada has shown real courage thus far in standing firm on this issue in the face of pressure from the United States and from large media conglomerates. Let’s not give in

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Reflexive anti-Americanism

Near the end of a recent column on Sir John A. Macdonald that calls on Canadians to put things in context and see things from more than one side (“If Sir John Must Stay,” August 10), Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick offers us this: “Americans don’t do context, they just bomb. They think all of their pointless wars of recent history stand alone, not realizing they’re just Vietnam over and over again.” She writes as if “Americans” were one amorphous mass. Editors would surely have cut any such crude generalization about “Russians” or “Chinese”; why is crude anti-Americanism given a free pass?

Sloppy thinking, is the short answer. So much attention is paid to Donald Trump and the Trump administration that many Canadians--like so many others around the world who are rightly horrified by the opinions and actions of the current occupant of the White House--allow themselves to start responding in a reflexively negative way to everything American and to the very idea of America. At some level people know that Trump is not America--that 3 million more Americans voted for Clinton than for Trump in 2016, and that since then polls have consistently shown majority opposition to Trump among Americans (in contrast, a significant majority of the Russian population is believed to support Vladimir Putin.) Yet many allow themselves to forget those facts, and to fall into sloppy generalizations.

If it happens with respected journalists such as Mallick and the Toronto Star editorial staff, how much more frequently does it happen with ordinary citizens who do not make their living by following public affairs? Very, very frequently, it would seem; a few months ago the Environics Institute found that Canadians viewed the United States more negatively than any other country in the world--including even North Korea (Canada's World Survey 2018--'s-world-2017-survey; for an interesting commentary see Doug Saunders' April 14, 2018 Globe and Mail column, "Canadians are seeing the whole world through an anti-American lens").

Those of us who live outside America and who oppose Trump and all he stands for should stand firm in our opposition. But we should stop conflating the worst of America with all of America.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Prize of Prizes in the Book World?

The Guardian has an interesting piece on how there has been a significant backlash against the Man Booker Prize having been opened up to Americans:

The piece makes the case well. But if the Booker does revert to being a "Britain and the Commonwealth" prize, let me suggest that a new prize be organized: a prize winner's prize. (Indeed, even if the Booker remains open to Americans there might be good reason to start a prize of this sort.) Such a prize would work in much the same way as does the Champion's League in soccer: the winners of the world's top prizes for a work of fiction in English would each be eligible, and a separate jury would judge which novel they thought to be the best of the best. Or, eligibility could be expanded to allow all the books shortlisted for any of the prizes to be eligible; that would spark some heated debate if a novel that had only been shortlisted for an award won the prize of prizes. (In much the same way, the Champions League also admits some runners-up.)

Which prizes would be included? The Booker, obviously. The Pulitzer and/or the National Book Award from the US. The Dublin International Book Award. The Giller Prize and/or the Governor General's Award from Canada. The Miles Franklin Literary Award from Australia. The Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Best Novel in Britain and Ireland. The Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year. The Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction (New Zealand). It would be important too not to leave out the annual awards from Asia and Africa--awards such as the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English, the Nigeria Prize for Literature (Fiction), the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and (from India) the Crossword Book Award (Fiction).

Even if the Booker stays as it is, a Prize of Prizes would be a good way of drawing more attention to books of interest from around the world.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Commas for Clarity

Would these sentences be improved by the addition of a comma?
In the days after the disaster the family had little to eat other than bread and little to do other than dwell on their hunger.

Though the image appears quite inoffensive at a distance, the artist has affixed to the painting cutouts of body parts from magazines and has incorporated clumps of elephant dung into the piece.
If you are like me, when you see a word combination such as “bread and…” in the first sentence, a part of your mind may be already thinking of possible combinations—bread and butter, bread and jam, and so on. The word and starts to attach itself in your mind to the word bread, and then you have to perform something of a double take when your reading brain finally realizes that the word and should properly be attached in this context not to bread but to the verb had. For the sake of clarity, then, wouldn’t it make sense to add a comma after bread, as a signal to the reader not to attach and to bread, even for a split second?

Similarly, in the second sentence, when you see the word combination “magazines and…” a part of your mind may already be thinking of a phrase such as magazines and newspapers. For the sake of clarity, wouldn’t it make sense to add a comma? A comma between the word magazines and the word and would help the reader understand more quickly that the word and should not be attached to the word magazines—that the sentence has a compound predicate, with and has incorporated structurally echoing the earlier has affixed.

Adding a comma for clarity in cases such as these seems to me like simple good sense, and a few authorities (particularly in Britain) are of like mind.

Not so in North America, where just about every language authority asserts that such sentences should never, ever be broken up by a comma in this way. We are told that, whereas a comma may be used—indeed, must be used—before a coordinating conjunction such as and when the coordinating conjunction is used to join two independent clauses, in other circumstances a comma should not normally appear before a coordinating conjunction (whether and or any of the six others*). Further, in the case of compound predicates, various authorities put forward the principle that a subject should not be separated from its predicate by a comma. To do so in a sentence with a compound predicate is termed by one authority “the worst punctuation mistake” of all.

Obviously one wouldn’t want to separate subject and predicate with a comma in a short sentence, but every authority in fact accepts commas between subject and predicate in at least one circumstance—the sentence with three or more predicates. Such sentences are treated as lists—which are also regarded as an exception to the rule that a comma should not appear before a coordinating conjunction unless the conjunction joins two independent clauses. Where lists are concerned, preferences vary as to whether the last item in the series should be preceded by a comma (this is the issue of the serial comma, or "Oxford comma."). But in a sentence such as the following, all authorities would agree that a comma should appear after the word bread—and most authorities would also endorse the use of a comma between the word warm and the word and:
In the days after the disaster the family possessed little to eat other than bread, could find little to keep them warm and had little to do except dwell on their discomfort. [no serial comma included]

In the days after the disaster the family possessed little to eat other than bread, could find little to keep them warm, and had little to do except dwell on their discomfort. [serial comma included]
An exception, then, is made in the case of lists—for clarity, in order to enable the reader to better understand the structure of the sentence. For precisely the same reasons, why not allow a comma to be used in the two examples cited in the first paragraph above? Why indeed? At the very least, I would argue, the inclusion of a comma in such circumstances should be considered an acceptable option.

I realize, of course, that I live in North America, where the trend has long been to use fewer commas than in Britain or some other parts of the English-speaking world. But that’s a matter of style rather than of correctness. If North American authorities want to recommend against the use of these sorts of commas, let them do so on the grounds of style—not by suggesting that to add a comma before the word and in sentences such as the one above is to contravene any logical set of grammatical rules.

*This issue arises with far greater frequency with and than it does with any of the other six coordinating conjunctions (but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nation Rising

I heard today through a post on Vegans of Nanaimo about the "Nation Rising" demonstration planned for Parliament Hill July 14. It has the support of a number of excellent groups (including Animal Justice), and sounds like a great idea. The aims of Nation Rising are as follows:
1. Stop subsidies to animal agriculture: Stop the multi-billion dollar subsidies that go to animal agriculture. It is wrong that our tax dollars are used to fund food that makes us sick, destroys our planet, and hurts animals.

2. Make healthy food affordable: Create new subsidies to ensure healthy, organic, plant-based food is affordable for everyone, in particular Indigenous and low-income communities.

3. Help farmers transition to plant-based farming: Provide financial assistance to farmers wishing to make the transition to plant-based farming, and set up the necessary committees to provide guidance during that transition.
If you can go to Ottawa mid July and join in, that would be wonderful. I doubt if I can--but I'm thinking that maybe those of us who can't make it to Parliament Hill might organize support demonstrations in other cities across the country.

For more information, here are the "Nation Rising" website and Facebook page locations: