Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Eating for a Greener Planet

I've been very quiet on the blog the past few months--largely because a lot of my spare time has been taken up with working as part of a group trying to try to bring about change within the Green Party of Canada. I can now report that five of the nine candidates running for the party leadership (Judy Green, Meryam Haddad, Amita Kuttner, Dimitri Lascaris, and David Merner) have declared their support for a new approach to animal agriculture—phasing out subsidies to animal agriculture (and increasing support for plant-based alternatives), as well as including animal agriculture GHG emissions under the provisions of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act. In other words, there’s now a very good chance that we can elect a party leader who will make the Green Party of Canada the country’s first major party committed to taking seriously the harms caused by animal agriculture—and by eating animals.

Anyone who would like to make that happen can help by joining the Green Party of Canada before 11:59 pm on September 3, and taking part in the voting later that month. Membership in the Green Party of Canada costs just $10; any Canadian or permanent resident aged 14 can join.

I hope you’ll join us! I’ve just posted more information on this website: https://donlepan.wixsite.com/greener-planet

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rhyme of New Orleans

Maureen and I were thinking the other night that there are too few poems written that have something to them of joy. As you may have experienced recently, there's been a move in some circles to circulate poems--poems that people have found engaging and affecting, particularly in a joyous or uplifting sort of way. There is of course no shortage of engaging and affecting poetry in the world, but E.E. Cummings and a few others excepted, there has been a dirth of poets who frequently write poetry expressive of joy--whether in some pure form or admixed with other emotions.

One such poem that comes to mind is Alice Oswald's "Wedding"; another is Carol Ann Duffy's "John Barleycorn." The latter is a poem very largely composed of the names of English pubs; re-reading it the other day (before I passed it along as a reading recommendation to one of these "Poem Exchange" groups) made me think that one could perhaps do something of the same sort with the names of bars in New Orleans. The poem below is the result of my effort to do just that (drawing on some of the material I'd included a few years back in a poem for Maureen). It didn't end up with as many bar-names as I'd thought it would, and the joy is certainly admixed with a few other emotions, but joy there is. For what it's worth:

Rhyme of New Orleans

New Orleans don’t rhyme with beans, or with means

That’s what they’ll tell you, uptown or downstream:

New Orleans don’t rhyme with beans.

But Satchmo did it—you know what it means...:

When it’s music it all becomes different, it seems,

The notes and the words flow like water, like dreams—

Like the dark and the deep of the river’s wide dreams

As it curls in the sparkle of night through New Orleans.

Rhyme New Orleans. Rhyme New Orleans and the music begins,

With full rhymes, fat rhymes, light rhymes, slant rhymes,

With high notes, low notes, bank notes. Light sins.

Rhyme thick air. Rhyme black and white and good times,

Rhyme Abita and amber, and rhyme good health,

Rhyme night and stomping, rhyme black and blue,

Rhyme like the river, turned back on itself

And stretching, aching, thrusting round, surging through,

And once or twice a lifetime, swamping

The city that once was the place where they sold the enslaved,

City of graves, city of cotton,

Time stretched, time lost, but nothing forgotten,

‘Cept some days let’s pretend last night never happened.

The night is warm, the beer is cool,

There’s jazz, there’s blues, there’s someone rappin,

DBA, Hi Ho, they’re passing the hat,

Vaughan’s, the Mother-in-Law, Spotted Cat,

Blue Nile, Maple Leaf, the Candlelight Lounge,

Spare a dollar? I tell ya, I just gotta scrounge

A few bucks, buy a coffee, a meal;

I can tell ya, nobody here really wants to steal.

Tipitina’s, Lost Love, the Friendly Bar

All open late, and the door’s ajar:

That’s Chris Kohl’s clarinet, smooth as a knife;

Eight to the bar, hold a note like forever. Like life.

That tune? You can’t lose it; Time? You can’t choose it.

It’s time like the always and never of music,

Of everything music, of mockingbird music,

Like the always and never of

Living, of loving. Of love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Cross-Cultural Scholarship: A Cautionary Tale

My original intention was to call my first book The Birth of Expectation: A Cognitive Revolution in Western Culture. But when I told the publishers, Macmillan, of my tentative plans for a follow-up volume they decided they wanted a grander title; when it came out in 1989 the book had acquired a definite rather than an indefinite article at the start, and bore the title The Cognitive Revolution in Western Culture, volume 1: The Birth of Expectation. In a quiet way it’s received a good deal of attention over the years—though, in recent years, not of a sort that makes me at all happy.

The monograph originated in the Masters thesis I had completed at Sussex more than a decade earlier (working under the brilliantly wide-ranging scholar, and wonderfully warm-hearted human being A.D. Nuttall), the central insight of which had been that there was a yawning divide between the plotting techniques employed by Shakespeare and Marlowe and the plotting techniques employed by their medieval (and even their immediate Tudor) predecessors. Shakespeare and Marlowe crafted plots that facilitate the formation of expectations in the minds of the audience members; typically, characters’ intentions are revealed before they act on those intentions. That became the most common template for plots through to our own day; audiences (or readers, or viewers) are provided with raw material that encourages them to form expectations of what is likely to happen as the action moves forward. But almost all plots from the medieval period operate on a very different basis; one thing happens, and then another thing happens, and then another thing happens after that, without our being given information that would allow us to form expectations as to what is likely to happen.

The question I was left with when I had completed the short Master’s thesis was why. Why would such a drastic change in dramatic plots have occurred? And the conclusion I eventually came to was that most people in pre-Shakespearian England had not developed the sorts of temporal and causal thought processes that, for educated individuals in technological societies, have become sufficiently ingrained to make the formation of expectations as to what is likely to happen a deep-rooted habit.

It was a conclusion reached largely through a comparison of the evidence from medieval English (and medieval European) culture with evidence from a wide range of other pre-literate societies. But it was a conclusion carefully qualified in a number of ways. First, I made clear that the generalizations I was making concerned the great majority but not every individual; I was not suggesting that highly educated individuals such as Thomas Aquinas or Geoffrey Chaucer had not developed the ability to form expectations of this sort. Second, I made clear that the differences I was postulating were the result of environmental factors and subject to change; they were not innate. “Indeed,” I suggested, “it seems self-evident that a baby born into [San society on the Kalahari] but brought up from infancy and educated in Toronto will grow up with modern Western habits of thought, and that the reverse is also true.”

Though my focus in looking at developed societies was on those of the Shakespearian and post- Shakespearian Western cultures, I in no way suggested that non-Western literate cultures had not developed causal and temporal cognitive habits of very much the same sort as those developed in the literate West. I said very little about non-Western literate cultures, either in earlier eras or today. Then as now, it seemed obvious to me that even a glance in the direction of the history of China should be enough to make clear that, over much of the past 2,000 years and more, Chinese culture evidenced causal and temporal thought processes at least as sophisticated as those found anywhere in the West at the same time.

It seemed clear to me too that many “developing” countries were indeed developing not just economically, but also in terms of people developing more complex patterns of temporal and causal thought. Of Zimbabwe, for example—a country where I lived for three years in the early 1980s, teaching at a rural high school—I observed that generalizations about causal and temporal thought processes which “still hold for the bulk of the rural population, most of whom are untravelled and (despite the massive developments in the years since Independence) only semi-educated, are manifestly untrue of the growing number of Zimbabweans who are possessed not only of a high level of formal education but also what one can only refer to as urban sophistication.”

Most important of all, I repeatedly made clear that my argument should not be taken to suggest an over-arching superiority of any sophisticated culture over any less sophisticated one. Indeed, my contention was that even where most people in pre-literate cultures may tend to think in quite different –and even less logical ways—than most people in more highly educated and sophisticated cultures, they may still be equal or superior to more “developed” peoples in spheres such as the moral and the aesthetic. I also suggested that pre-literate cultures often possess a poetic vitality that has been largely lost in the developed West, and argued strenuously that a highly educated society in which the majority of people possess highly complex temporal or causal thought processes is no more likely to be a wise or a morally good society than is the most undeveloped of pre-literate societies.

The one thing I regret about the way I expressed the argument of The Birth of Expectation: A Cognitive Revolution in Western Culture (as I much prefer to call the book) is that, instead of referring to “pre-literate societies” or “elemental ways of thought” I used a term that, although controversial, was in the 1980s still fairly common in reputable scholarly discourse; I referred to “primitive societies” and “primitive ways of thought.” I soon realized that I had made a mistake. The 1995 paperback edition of the book includes the following note, which bears repeating:
I have become convinced that the frequent use in the text of the word “primitive” was ill-advised. In the book’s first long note and at many other points I am at pains to point out that I see the proper use of the term as being purely descriptive (to mean “original; primary”) rather than pejorative. But as others have now persuaded me, … one doesn’t get to make the language; once a word such as “primitive” has been corrupted by prolonged pejorative use, it may not be enough to argue that it should not carry negative connotations.
The text [of the paperback edition] has not been reset, and troublesome word thus remains. (Nor am I sure of the best substitute; I suspect “elemental” might serve better than any other.) But at least the paperback may carry a prominently placed apologia for my having used a word that I should have recognized carried with it the risk of tainting for many people the thesis of the entire book, and of allowing it to be suspected of perpetrating the very sorts of preconceptions that it was written largely to challenge.
As it happened, the book was not attacked for its use of the word "primitive," or for its thesis; the scholarly reviews were not numerous but they were on the whole very favorable.

I nevertheless am deeply saddened by its reception. It has had virtually no impact in the field of serious literary studies, and I make no complaint about that; it’s the fate of most scholarly monographs, particularly when they put forward arguments that go nowhere near the currents of a discipline’s main stream. What saddens me is where the book has made an impact. Despite all the disclaimers, despite all the careful qualifiers, the book has been cited again and again by those whose goal is to paint the West as superior to the rest.

Typical is an article by Ricardo Duchesne, posted on the “Counter-Currents” website and entitled “Jean Piaget and the Superior Psychogenetic Cognition of Europeans.” Counter-Currents Publishing—a self declared voice of “the North American New Right” –dedicates itself to principles such as this: “We live in a Dark Age, in which decadence reigns and all natural and healthy values are inverted.” It declares that it “aims to promote the survival of essential ideas and texts into Golden Age to come.” Those “essential” ideas, it is made very clear, are European ideas—evidently code for “white people’s ideas,” given that white North Americans are surely included in the "North American New Right."

Ricardo tries to use my work to support what to me are entirely misguided claims for the supposed “superior intellectual powers and superior creative impulses” of Western culture. He refers to the “he uniqueness of the West,” “the higher fluidity of the Western mind, the multiple intelligences of Europeans”—repeatedly suggesting that “Europeans” are innately superior to other peoples.

Duchesne does acknowledge at one point in his discussion that “LePan carefully distances himself from any claim that Europeans were genetically wired for higher levels of cognition.” But he suggests that the sorts of evidence I present can and should be taken to draw such a conclusion. More, he ascribes to writers of my ilk a fear of confronting the truths my work supposedly points to:
The uniqueness of the West frightens academics. They have concocted every imaginable explanation to avoid coming to terms with the fact that Europeans could not have produced so many transformations, innovations, renaissances, original thinkers, and the entire modern world, without having superior intellectual powers and superior creative impulses. To draw any such conclusions about the world’s various groups of humans is to my mind not only wrong in point of fact; it is also morally repugnant.
It is telling that Duchesne dismisses the final chapter of The Birth of Expectation (“Postscript: Zimbabwe, 1995”—to my mind perhaps the best-written part of the book) as simply “strange.” He observes archly that “LePan praises the cultural ‘vitality’ of this African country,” as if that were all I praised about Zimbabwean culture—and as if any praise at all for an “African country” were to be wondered at.

Anyone who knows anything of the culture of Zimbabwe—the engaging and intelligent fiction of such writers as Charles Mungoshi, Tsitsi Dangaremba, and NoViolet Bulawayo, for example, or the unforgettable music of such songwriters and musicians as Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Leonard Zhakata—will be aware of its rich complexity and its wide-ranging intelligence as well as its vitality. But writers such as Duchesne evidently have no interest in non-European cultures in and of themselves; such cultures seem to be of interest only insofar as information about them can be twisted so as to suggest that they are inferior to “European” cultures.

It is in the Postscript that I argue most powerfully that “the Shakespearean moment” in our own culture occurred when new cognitive processes were emerging among the majority of the population, but the poetic vitality of pre-literate culture was also still very much alive in the mainstream of society. Given the degree to which such vitality has now been blunted by the post-renaissance emphasis on rationalism, I argue that another such moment has become impossible in our own society—and that “if a new Shakespeare is to emerge,” it is far more likely to be “from the valleys of the Niger or the Zambezi than the skyscrapers of New York or London.” I believed that then; I still do.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Ag Gag Laws Continue to Spread Across the US—and Now They’ve Come to Canada

In many areas of the world trespassing is a relatively minor offence under the law, and offenders are liable to relatively minor punishments. The maximum fine for a first offence in the province of Alberta, for example, was until recently $2,000; for a second offence the maximum was $10,000. (Penalties for trespassing are typically the same regardless of whether the premises are a private individual’s home and yard, a business owner’s warehouse and parking lot, or a farmer’s fields and farm buildings.)

But under the provisions of a bill rushed through the Alberta legislature by Premier Jason Kenney’s Conservative government late last year, an individual in that province who has been found guilty of trespassing is now subject to a fine of up to $10,000 for a first offence—plus six months in jail. A second offence is now subject to a fine of up to $25,000, plus a further six months in jail. An organization involved in sponsoring or directing an act of trespass is subject to a fine of up to $200,000. If one is deemed to have gained access under “false pretenses” (for example, by falsely saying as you start a job at a pig farm that you have no intention of taking photographs of any animals being abused), one is subject to the same penalties.

Why prescribe such harsh punishments for such a minor offence? The key is in another part of the bill, where it is specified that such penalties apply even when property is not fenced off and no notices forbidding trespassing have been posted—if the offence occurs on farmland or “on land that is used for the raising of and maintenance of animals.”

Alberta’s Bill 27 is legislation of a sort familiar to many Americans as “ag gag” legislation—legislation intended to gag those who would inform the general public of what goes on behind the closed doors of the agricultural operations where the 10 billion or so mammals and birds killed every year in North America for human food live out their brief, unhappy lives.

As in many other North American jurisdictions, such operations in Alberta are in practice exempt from almost all provisions of animal cruelty legislation. Typically, such legislation prohibits only the causing of “unnecessary” pain, suffering or injury to an animal, and in many jurisdictions any practice is allowed if it can be classed as part of “generally accepted” practices of animal management or animal husbandry. Given that those have for decades included such practices as confining sows in crates so small that the animals can never turn around, and confining egg-laying hens to cages in which they each have no more than 67 square inches of living space, a phrase such as “generally accepted practices” leaves a lot of room for cruelty. But not enough room to satisfy the animal agriculture lobby. Over the past decade and more, undercover operations at animal agriculture facilities across North America have revealed horrific examples both of what constitutes “generally accepted practice” and of abuses that exceed anything that could possibly be described as “necessary cruelty” or “generally accepted practice.” As Camille Labchuk, executive director of the organization Animal Justice, has pointed out, “whistleblowing employees are often the only way the public has to monitor the conditions animals endure on modern farms.”

Alberta is not the only province that has moved to criminalize such whistleblowing; in the province of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government has just introduced similar legislation. In doing so, the two provinces are following in the footsteps of the many American states that have passed such legislation (in three of which the legislation has been ruled unconstitutional—legal battles continue elsewhere).

At stake is not only the treatment of non-human animals, important though that is; it is also freedom of speech. A society in which whistleblowers are prevented from drawing the attention of the public to horrific abuses is a society that gives license to the powerful to do anything they please.

But surely, many may say, property owners have a right to do as they please on their own property; should we not do everything we can to protect that right? Perhaps the best response to such arguments is to imagine a situation in which those being abused are not calves and piglets and chicks but puppies and kittens—or human children. In any such scenario it becomes clear that we instinctively feel private property rights to be far outweighed by those of the general public. The public in such cases has a right to know—and the public has as well a responsibility to do everything possible to stop the abuse. (That’s particularly the case given that agricultural operations enjoy the benefits of considerable government subsidies in almost every North American jurisdiction.) Yet Governments in Alberta and Ontario—just like governments in many American states—are doing everything possible to keep the public from knowing what’s going on—and nothing whatsoever to stop the cruelty.

Animal activist and free speech groups are likely to challenge the constitutionality of the Canadian laws, just as such legislation has been challenged in America. But it is hard to keep up; though the issue receives little coverage in the mainstream media, in America the problem has been getting worse rather than better. Ag gag laws have been attempted in a total of 28 states; they have now become law in a total of at least 11. Even in Iowa, where the state ag gag law was ruled unconstitutional in January 2019, the legislature within two months managed to pass a new ag gag bill. And in some states with ag gag laws—notably, North Carolina—the legislation is worded so broadly as to deter whistleblowing in almost any industry in almost any context.

Today’s media give a good deal of attention to alleged threats to freedom of speech coming from progressives on university campuses; it is time more attention was paid to these far more serious threats to freedom of speech that are coming from industry and from government.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Baseball Hall of Fame Criteria

It's too seldom noticed that, of the six criteria to be considered when deciding who should be admitted to the baseball Hall of Fame, three have nothing to do with anything that can be measured by WAR:
Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
Far from being unreasonable, keeping the likes of Curt Schilling out of the Hall of Fame is standing up for what's most important--in sports, and also in life.

Larry Walker, we celebrate your entry into baseball's Hall of Fame!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Textbook Prices

Columbia University professor Tim Wu published an interesting piece in The New York Times this week on textbook prices. I sent the following letter to the editor; The Times has not published it, so I'll post it here.
Tim Wu is absolutely right that many university textbook publishers have been ripping off students for years ("How Professors Help Rip Off Students: Textbooks Are Too Expensive," Dec. 12). Some large publishers in particular have long made a practice of setting hugely inflated prices for bound book textbooks—and then turning around and saying to academics—"but look! We can offer you digital products much more cheaply.” (What they don’t draw attention to is that these digital products increase their profit margins by killing off the used book market.)

But before concluding that the only choices are between overpriced bound book textbooks and digital options that often offer lower quality and less flexibility than they seem to promise, I would encourage academics not to tar all publishers with the same brush. Smaller and mid-sized independent publishers such as Hackett, Broadview, and Norton (as well as several university presses) have for many years offered high quality textbooks at reasonable prices in both bound book and e-book formats—and we continue to do so.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Canada's Green Party - Which Way Forward?

In his Nov. 8 Globe and Mail column, Gary Mason puts forward the interesting argument that the Green Party of Canada should either merge with the NDP or “try to build a broader, more serious platform that is palatable to a greater cross-section of Canadians.” By taking this latter path, Mason suggests, “the Greens in Germany reinvented themselves” to become a major player on that country’s political scene.

Let’s look more closely at the German experience. The Greens in that country have indeed been riding high in the polls, and they have indeed put forward a broad, serious platform. But have they done so primarily in the way that Mason suggests—by watering down their environmentalism in order to make themselves “more attractive to centrist voters”? That's highly debatable.

The German Greens recognize—as, in Canada, even the Green Party is sometimes hesitant to do—that fighting climate change and protecting our future isn’t only a matter of reducing the production and consumption of fossil fuels. In particular, they recognize that industrial animal agriculture is damaging to human health in a wide variety of ways, and is responsible for a very significant percentage of global warming. Here are some highlights from the German Green Party’s set of agricultural policies (which together form a central part of their overall program):
We will replace intensive factory farming over the next twenty years by livestock welfare-centred husbandry. We will enforce higher animal welfare standards by law, based on the needs of animals, and on ending agonising breeding techniques and intensive animal farming. … We will restructure Europe’s tax billions to ensure that environmental protection and animal welfare become new income opportunities for farmers, because the new agriculture will depend on these farmers.
A German Green party spokesperson recently confirmed that the party supports increased taxes on meat consumption, with the proceeds being directed to improving animal welfare. In all this, the German Greens are considerably bolder than the Green Party in Canada—which is currently the only major Canadian party to engage at all seriously with the damage done by industrial agriculture. (The NDP echoes the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the Bloc in their enthusiastic defence of the status quo in the Canadian agriculture sector—including massive subsidies to animal agriculture.)

A few years ago things were different for the Greens in Germany; in 2013 their support fell dramatically when they proposed a once-a-week Veggie Day, on which cafeterias would be required to offer only vegetarian choices. The change in the party’s fortunes is partly a result of having pulled back on coercive policies of that sort. But it’s also a result of real changes in public opinion. Germans may still be opposed to any party trying to tell them they can’t eat meat on any given day. But many seem no longer to be opposed to putting a price on the damage done by industrial animal agriculture.

Slowly—ever so slowly—Canadians may be starting to move in the same direction. A 2018 survey by Sylvain Charlebois of Canadians’ eating habits reported that 7.1% of Canadians self-identify as vegetarian, with over 2% of those being vegan. (By comparison, just 3% self-identified as vegetarian in 2003.) A further 10.2% described themselves as “flexitarian” or as having a “primarily vegetarian diet”; that’s over 17% either vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian. And of those Canadians who do eat meat, fully 51% reported that they were willing to consider reducing their meat intake.

I would argue that the Canadian Greens should be gently encouraging Canadians to move in just those sorts of directions. The Greens should take the lead not only in calling for an end to government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, but in doing the same when it comes to animal agriculture. And the new Green leader (whoever he or she may be) should speak to us as individuals as well, pointing out that we’re all in this together, that our governments can’t do it all, and that, just as we should all do what we can to reduce our impact when it comes to driving, flying, and heating our homes, so too should we do what we can for our environment, our health, and our children’s future when it comes to choosing what we eat and drink, what we wear, how we live our lives. The German Greens have been doing just that—and public opinion now seems finally to have caught up with them.