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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eight Predators Die During a Northern Performance Tour

This morning, a friend from PETA contacted me and asked me to research the death of seven tigers and a lioness from a Russian circus. Exhausted after a long trip yesterday, I thought I'd do some quick research and go back to sleep. What I found out will keep me from sleeping for quite some time.

Here's a quick translation of the article that appears at


In Yakutsk, posters and banners advertising a New Year show with tigers are being pulled down. The performance tour of Krasnodar tent circus “The Dream,” which has been selling out, has been cancelled. On the way to Yarkutsk, seven tigers and one lioness have died. The legal authorities are trying to find out why this happened and who is responsible. One version says that the circus animals might have died of hypothermia. Another says that they were simply poisoned.

… “We were supposed to meet them here,” says director of Saharcircus Sergey Rastorguyev. “They selected the car on their own and came over, and when they got here, they realized something had happened on the way. Right now, we can’t give you exact information.”

The animals had spent several weeks traveling successfully around the country. They performed to sold out crowds in the Middle Eastern city of Habarovsk and the town of Nerungy in Yarkutsk. The tour organizers, employees of the Krasnodar tent circus “The Dream” decided to go to the northern-most circus by cars. But the 800-kilometer trip in a heated Kamaz refrigerator truck were lethal to the predators.

Investigators and criminal authorities are trying to determine the exact cause of death. Nikolay Sizyh, deputy director of the press department of the police department of the Saha Republic (Yakutia) says the following:

“Right now, we’re conducting a special investigation, after which the cause of death of the tigers will be known. Seven tigers and one lioness were being transported. The preliminary version points to food poisoning.”

One of the versions under consideration is poisoning by exhaust fumes. The animals might have run out of air in the crowded container. The owners of the predators have refused to comment. This is understandable: they are, after all, being accused of blatant disregard of rules of animal transportation.

This would have been the first show of this type in Yakutsk with the participation of seven tigers and one lioness. The ticket sales were brisk. Now, the entire New Year’s entertainment program is quickly being changed. But a worthy substitute to the dead animals will not be found.


Another article published by Maiak Radio adds that two of the tigers were protected Siberian tigers entered into the Red Book - Russia's registry of protected animals. It is against the law to use protected animals in circuses.

RIA News mentions the case in its Ecology section and links to a long, heartbreaking list of other cases of animals who've died in Russia during transportation. The article ends with these words:

“The exotic animals were transported in an unheated, unventilated container, and the personnel that was supposed to take care of the animals during transportation spent the whole trip getting drunk.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Zombie Nazis or Nazi Zombies?

Zombie Nazis are Nazis who have, through an accident of fate, become zombies. Their basic nature is their Nazism. Their zombie condition is secondary to their Nazi worldview and attitude: i.e. what kind of Nazis are they? - they're zombie Nazis.

Nazi Zombies, on the other hand, are just plain implausible.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"I don't want to sound like a queer or nothing..."

Kiran has written a Facebook piece about the pitfalls of identification with sexual labels. Since she refuses to have a blog of her own, I'll just have to post it here. :)

"I'm Not a Queer Or Nothing, But..."

Have you ever said, "I'm not gay, but..." or "I'm not bisexual, but..." as a disclaimer before expressing how much you are attracted to someone of the same gender as you?

If you are progressive, liberal, and you stand for LGBT rights, have you ever wondered why you need to give a disclaimer like that before expressing feelings that might qualify you as being bisexual?

I have.

First of all, as a bisexual woman (I prefer the term queer) who has been in relationships with both men and women, and who is in a happy, long-term relationship with a woman, I find it hurtful when some of my friends still qualify their own sexual desires for people of the same gender by first separating themselves from people like me. There's nothing wrong with being heterosexual, but there is something very wrong with being heterosexist, which is the idea that heterosexuality is the default, natural, normal thing to be, and that it's a black or white area with no variations.

If you are telling someone how you support gay rights, you don't need to keep qualifying that with "I'm not gay or nothing, but...". Similarly, if you are telling people that you are bi-curious, or attracted to someone of the same gender, then those of us who have put our lives on the line to be honest about sexuality, would appreciate it if you could stop talking about this matter like it's a hot potato that you are willing to support in passing, but not willing to own, even when you yourself have feelings that would qualify you as bisexual.

Some might say that labels don't matter. While I agree with that, I have to wonder why the label "straight" matters, while "bisexual" or "homosexual" or "queer" don't. If none of them matter, why label yourself anything at all? Saying "I'm straight, but I'd totally do that guy/girl" is tantamount to saying "I'm not a transvestite - I just love wearing women's clothes." The first part of the sentence is only there as long as the speaker is assuming that something is wrong with the second part. No matter how progressive the speaker might be, the disclaimer unmasks the fact that heterosexuality is still the norm in the speaker's mind.

Labels define us only insofar as they stand for the feelings we experience. When people say "I'm not bi, but...", they are deciding that one set of their feelings (feelings of attraction to a person of the same gender) are less valid than others. The "gay" feelings they might be feeling are less important, less defining than the "straight" ones. What does that say about their attitude, invisible as it might be to them, towards those of us who own up to our "gay" feelings and act on them daily? This separation of feelings into more important and less important colors the progressivism of the speaker: instead of expressing true unity with the people he or she is claiming to support, the speaker is now simply expressing condescending concern towards lesser beings for whom he/she feels pity, but one of whom he/she can not imagine actually being.

Society has given "straight" a higher status than every variation of sexuality, and calling yourself "straight" gives you the social status of one who is privileged. So, by denying your own bisexual feelings, and by constantly stating that you are *not* bisexual (or gay, or trans), even though you have feelings that "those" people have, you may be perpetuating the same heterosexism that you as a progressive, liberal person claim to be against. Heterosexism, like racism and classism, is the idea that one group of people ought to be privileged above everyone else. And many people, while they may have good intentions, are afraid of letting go of that privileged status in society. But then, how progressive are we if we're not willing to live up to the principles we claim to uphold?

We need to start being honest with ourselves. And we need to think about the words we use to communicate, because that's how people know each other, especially online. When you claim that you are yourself, of course, obviously, "straight" but that you have these little feelings that come up towards a certain person you know, or someone famous, who is the same gender as you, then what you are saying is that the label "straight" is more important to you than your feelings. And that your heterosexual feelings are what define you and are what are *real* and *important* and that your bisexual/homosexual side can be dismissed as something fun, but meaningless. That does not help LGBT rights, and that's not what I would expect of someone who otherwise supports LGBT rights.

This is not to say that all progressives have a duty to identify themselves as bisexual. We can all recognize that sexuality is much more fluid than the narrow labels used to describe it. Identifying as straight in the context of admitting attraction to a member of the same gender tells us much more about the speaker's prejudices against certain sexualities than it does about the speaker's sexuality itself. The moment you have sex with, desire for, or fantasies about a person of the same gender as you, you are no longer fitting into the heterosexual definition, and by forcing that definition upon your multi-faceted and fluid sexuality and denying your sexuality and the sexual diversity of many others like you, you are actually helping the status quo, the privileged heterosexism that is the domain of religious fundamentalism.

So, the next time you want to express your bisexual tendencies while simultaneously denying that part of yourself, please try and think about who you are supporting and who you are dismissing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Death By Torchwood, And The Rise Of The Queer Superhero

Few deaths have been more shocking to gay television viewers than that of Ianto Jones in this summer’s Torchwood: Children Of Earth. His death during the fourth night of the BBC miniseries created a huge backlash, none of which surprised me more than claims that Ianto’s demise was an expression of the show’s homophobia.

Created by Russel T Davies, an openly gay writer famous for the complex and empowering Queer As Folk (UK), and starring John Barrowman, who might just be the most boisterously “out” star in the industry, Torchwood has been a bastion of queer pride since its debut in 2006. It evokes a world where homophobia is so non-existent that labels “gay,” “straight,” and “bi” have become irrelevant.

So how does the death of one of TV’s few prominent queer characters involved in a same-sex relationship fit into the show’s socially progressive vision? To my mind, Ianto’s death, rather than being homophobic, serves as a marker on the continuing road to true gay empowerment – a road that has frequently been two steps forward and one step back.

Gay and lesbian characters on screen have gone through a long and difficult journey from invisibility and vilification to understanding and acceptance. This journey is by no means over: queer people all over the world are still fighting for the most basic forms of cultural recognition. But while queer visibility in the media is on the rise in the Europe and North America, the nature of this visibility – and its effects on queer viewers – are not always positive.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

If we stand with Muslims, will Muslims stand with us?

Lately, I've been counting my blessings that I don't live in Europe. From the relative safety and comfort of Canada, it looks like England and France are on the verge of what would probably amount to a civil war - and the rest of Europe is not far behind.

On the one hand, Islam is growing by leaps and bounds, carrying with it the threat of social conservatism. Islam is not exactly supportive of women's equality, gay rights, or freedom from religion; and progressive Muslims willing to fight for these ideals within their communities seem to be few and far between.

On the other hand, white supremacist movements and racist organizations are rising to prominence in ways they hadn't done in Europe in decades. Like its poster-boy BNP, this bunch isn't exactly socially progressive: in fact, while they hate Muslims for their skin color and non-adherence to Christianity, the racists and nationalists hold much the same opinion of women, gays, and freedom of thought as that held by Islam.

Each side strengthens the resolve of the other. The racist and nationalist threat doubtless drives many moderate Muslims to become more radicalized, and further radicalization of the Muslim community whips nationalists into even more of a frenzy. It's a destructive circle jerk of fear and hatred.

And to someone like me - a queer, atheist woman - both sides are equally terrifying.

I also happen to believe that self-criticism is the key to progress (or, in fact, survival). Of Jewish background, I tend to be more critical of Israel than my Muslim-born partner. Raised in the Soviet Union before its collapse, I am more suspicious of communism than many of my Western left-wing friends. And since I'm white, I consider it my responsibility to stand against white supremacists and unequivocally say NOT IN MY NAME.

And yet, I can't ignore the fact that the community currently under attack by the white supremacists and nationalists in Europe is not exactly on my side.

My guess is that many social progressives in Europe are facing the same dilemma. Right now, for those of us whose lives literally depend on feminism, gay rights, and freedom from religion, it's easier to figure out whose side we're NOT on than whose side we support. As both sides whip each other into further heights of frenzy, true social progressives are left standing on the sidelines, more confused than they've been since the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.

There's no question of social progressives supporting racism and nationalism. But what does that mean, in practical terms? What does that mean during clashes between white supremacists and Muslims? What in this batshit crazy world are we supposed to do?

If we stand with the European Muslims in the fight for their survival, will they stand with us in the fight for ours? Will they support progressive ideals? Will they support gay rights - including the rights of their own gay children? Will they support women's equality - including the equality of their own wives? Will they support freedom of religion - including the freedom to have no religion at all?

Is it right to expect them to?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Atheist Afterlife

Religions tell us that an afterlife awaits us after death - an afterlife which we will enter as individuals, as the people we currently are. From the standpoint of continuation versus ending, many religious people look at atheists with pity: it must be terrible, or so they think, to believe that you just... end.

Of course many atheists believe nothing of the sort. Far from despairing over the end of their individual beings that comes with death, many atheists derive joy from the simple scientifically based knowledge that, as their individual being disintegrates with the dead brain tissue, they remain vibrantly present as part of the boundless living world, not the dead world of heaven, hell and the afterlife.

Our brains die and disintegrate - but our minds and spirits live on, quite independently from our individual entities. Each time we meet another person, each time we speak or write or smile at a passer-by or give a bank teller a dirty look, we contribute to the body of human consciousness. Famous people are the most obvious examples of immortality of the human mind - but one doesn't have to be famous. We are all products of our history, as individuals and as a society on the whole; and our history is comprised of all the people who have ever lived. Through us, their consciousness, the product of their now dead brains, is as alive as it ever was in their lifetimes.

This immortality of mind goes not only beyond famous people, but beyond recorded history. The thoughts and beliefs of people living during recorded history were based on the thoughts and beliefs of their ancestors; the fact that they were never written down makes them no less a part of our shared body of consciousness in the 21st century.

The bottom line is, whether we publish books and make discoveries that revolutionize our descendants' world, or whether we simply interact with people in our daily lives, the bits and pieces of what we think and feel, by way of influencing the people around us, will live on in them, their children, their grandchildren, and so forth - even if none of them ever learn our name. The very act of our being makes us forever part of the body of human consciousness.

As with our minds, so with our bodies. As the structural integrity of our bodies falls apart in the grave, our bodies don't disappear - on the contrary, they spread across the world, becoming an integral part of more places than we could ever hope to visit while alive. As our individual being rots in the earth, it feeds the bugs who feed the birds; it feeds the flowers that feed the bees, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The bees and birds carry bits and pieces of our bodies, dropping seeds and pollinating flowers - and next thing, our bodies are feeding humans halfway across the world, becoming parts of their bodies just like our ancestors fed us and became parts of our bodies. Humans who were alive millennia ago are still around today, giving us life as part of the neverending food chain; and we will be around millennia from now, becoming flowers and bees and fruits and people and earth over and over and over again.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Racism of Cultural Relativism: Germany Cites Koran in Rejecting Divorce - New York Times

Throughout the Western world, cases of domestic violence against white women are met with vigilance. But thanks to cultural relativism that expects tolerance of intolerant customs, this might no longer be the case for non-white women.

In Germany, cultural relativism was once again exposed as the appallingly racist ideology that it is, when a white female judge refused to grant divorce to a battered woman whose husband threatened to kill her, on the basis that the woman is from Morocco.

Mark Landler writes in his New York Times article:
In a remarkable ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, said that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which she said it was common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote, sanctions such physical abuse.

[...]the greatest damage done by this episode is to other Muslim women suffering from domestic abuse. Many are already afraid of going to court against their spouses.
Western feminists have shown an appalling disregard for their third-world sisters. The fact that a female judge in Germany, a country with some of the most progressive laws in the world, has decided to withhold these rights from another woman on the basis of her country of birth, is only the most obvious example of apartheid to which too many Muslim women are subjected in the West.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When Ideologies Clash: It’s a Numbers Game - But What Are We Counting?

As the birth rates of many Western countries plummet, with those countries’ orthodox religious communities picking up the slack, the “numbers game” concept is gathering steam. Where even a couple of decades ago, this xenophobic demographics-based concept was the nearly exclusive domain of right-wing nationalists, more and more liberals seem to be jumping on the “numbers game” bandwagon.

The panic is certainly understandable: as Muslim communities expand throughout Europe and North America, their members are seen as carriers of an ideology that threatens the hard won progressive secular values of their host countries. Like a menacing clawed hand of the enemy army crawling across the map of Europe in old World War II movies, Islam can be seen as leeching into the Western culture, carrying with it the threat of misogyny, homophobia and intolerance, and pushing Christianity (which can be - and has been throughout history - no less virulent given half a chance) back into a dangerous position of relevance along the way. But does the “numbers game” attitude help to stave off the threat to secular values like women’s self-determination, sexual freedom and gay rights?

On the contrary: I suspect that it only compounds the problem.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Air Show Porn - NOW Magazine

This Labour Day weekend was marked (or rather marred) by fighter jets ripping holes in the beautiful Toronto sky. Every time one of them passed overhead, making the city shake and leaving a trail of poison, I would flash back to the weeks after 9/11, when every New Yorker would stop and look nervously at the sky each time a plane appeared.

Mike Smith talks about the effects of the Labour Day Air Show on Toronto's refugee population (not to mention its environment) in his insightful article in NOW Toronto Magazine.
Sure, the whole thing’s over in days, but what if you came here to escape that ghastly circus? Over 60 per cent of refuge-seekers in Canada settle in the GTA. For them, Air Show memories may quietly take up residence with pre-existing trauma.
The term "post-traumatic stress disorder" has certainly been overused to the point of losing most of its impact; but I can't deny that witnessing the events of 9/11 first hand has left me with emotional scars that are unlikely to heal completely. And tragic and soul-crushing as it was, this was just one event, just one attack. Watching the fighter jets pollute our world with fumes and noise, I couldn't help but wonder how thousands of refugees who've found a safe haven in this peaceful city, many of whom had escaped lives full of death and explosions, felt about this rude and insensitive invasion.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"The Death of Ianto Jones: The Point of Pointlessness" - the Space Channel

Did Torchwood creator Russel T. Davies make a mistake in expecting a certain level of maturity from his audience? After reading post after post full of verbal abuse (and sometimes even threats of bodily harm) in the wake of the tragic events of Torchwood: Children Of Earth, I had to chime in.

My brief rebuttal was picked up by the blog at the Space channel which carries the BBC hit Torchwood in Canada.
The death of Ianto Jones in the 4th episode of Children of Earth seems to have sent a few shippers off the deep end. And even to the uninitiated, the death might seem like a plothole: these people are professionals, this is what they do, so how can they not have a plan? But if you've followed Torchwood from the beginning, this should come as no surprise.
Read the rest at Space channel's blog.

Added on September 7th, 2009: Referring to Ianto Jones' contentious death during the September 4th Torchwood panel at DragonCon, Gareth David-Lloyd, the actor behind Ianto, said, "I thought it should be as unremarkable, as pointless as possible..."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hell Yes, It's Personal!

This is a real conversation between me and my observant Jewish uncle.

ME: Uncle, is it true the prayer you have to say every morning includes thanking god that he didn't make you a woman?
ME: How does it make you feel saying that every morning, seeing as you have two daughters, two granddaughters and a sister?
UNCLE: Come on, it's not personal!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writing Dialog With a Foreign Accent

Our literature, much like our society, is becoming more and more multicultural. A story in which all characters come from the same background might not sound credible in a world where people increasingly communicate across racial and national divides: today, most neighborhoods, workplaces, and families are a kaleidoscope of diverse accents and cultures.

But portraying linguistic differences in writing can be tricky. How can you write dialog for a character with an accent with grace and respect, without coming across as offensive?


First and foremost, you must ask yourself: how does the character's accent serve your story?

Make sure you have a good answer before you proceed. Does the maid's Spanish accent underline the racial and economic divides in our society, or does it simply strengthen the stereotype that all maids are Hispanic? What can you achieve by giving a waiter - or a high-powered attorney - a Pakistani accent? Do you expect your readers to react to a Russian accent in a certain way, and what do you plan to do with that reaction?

You must always remember that an accent is a tool, not a comment on the character's personality. When you use an accent to imply intellectual abilities, or to draw humor from the imperfect English, you run the risk of offending your readers. But used carefully and with a lot of forethought, an accent can add depth and flavor to your writing.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Kiran Mehdee's short story The Wellness Room published in The Broken City Magazine

The Broken City Magazine has published a short story called The Wellness Room written by my partner Kiran Mehdee. This funny and life-affirming story is easily one of the best pieces Kiran has written (so far). Here's a taste:

My aloneness was a warm blanket I could hide in, burrowing like a wild ferret. The room, called the "Wellness Room," was the only reason I even managed to survive the job for the fourteen months I was there. Sparsely furnished with a plain table, a chair, a small trash can, and a fake plastic tree in the corner, it was an inner room surrounded by offices full of cubicles full of diligent wage slaves like me.

But not quite like me.
Read the rest of the story in the Winter 2008 edition of The Broken City Magazine. And watch this space - and Kiran's own blog - for more beautiful prose and poetry!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Take My Grandma... Please!

The following is an actual conversation between me and my paternal grandmother on New Year's Day.

GRANDMA: Happy New Year, honey!
ME: Happy New Year to you too, grandma!
GRANDMA: I wish you a happy, healthy year - and to finally meet a great man!
- pause -
ME: Wait, what?
GRANDMA: You know, I wish you to fall madly in love with a great man.
- pause -
ME: Wait, wait... you do know Kiran and I are practically married?
GRANDMA: Well, people get divorced all the time!
- pregnant pause -
ME: I just want to make sure I understand correctly - you are wishing me divorce?
GRANDMA: You know I would never wish you anything bad.