First Impressions of the CMHR

There is a ramp that wanders up through the galleries of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a zig-zag path framed by plates of Spanish alabaster lit from the inside. Nice ramp, I thought, but I was wrong. “It’s a ribbon of light leading us to a better understanding of human rights,” our tour guide said, in a sunny sort of way.

That’s the thing about the CMHR: its cleverness gets in its own way.

Or so it felt to me on the afternoon of opening day, trudging a carefully planned route through the building so beautiful and strange. Every detail is intended to be meaningful, every angle and architectural feature born of messaging and metaphor. In a museum dedicated to raising the most pressing questions of our existence, the building makes the loudest statement. The building swallowed us whole.

Maybe things will be different when the rest of the galleries are finished in November.

As of now, though, the whole place feels off balance. It’s the way the building careens around you, so dramatic and self-conscious. Light, it’s all about the play of light, starting with the way the sunlight can barely penetrate the steel and concrete of the ground-floor entrance hall. “So if you feel darkness and heaviness, then you’re getting it,” the tour guide explained, but added a helpful disclaimer. “If you don’t, that’s okay too.”

You rise up into light, into the galleries. The ones that are open feel unfinished, or else deliberately spare: some dramatic projections, some interactive stations, some artifacts under glass whispering their significance but (for now) presented without any written explanation. Who made that turtle carving? Are those the chains once worn by slaves? You want to honour these things, but again, the building gets in the way.

Notice all the terraces. (“We’ve already had a wedding!”) Notice the glass cloud that wraps around the building, no two of its 1,335 panes are the same shape. (“Just like human experiences are all different, and none can stand without the other!”) A great circular theatre in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery is made from sleek wooden slats, “representing the multitude of Canadian Aboriginal traditions.” The ramp. The Tower of Hope. The floors shine, the walls leer, the bubbling brook in the Garden of Contemplation hints of change and tears, columns of volanic rock in a nod to change-fire.

I remember these things, the scale of the place, the way the metaphors pressed down around the head. But I don’t remember almost any of the exhibits they were designed to contain. There was a quote from Taiaiake Alfred, there was a spectacular clay sculpture from a local artist whose name, I regret, I didn’t write down. There was a ballot box used in the South African election that carried Nelson Mandela to the presidency. There were projection panels. There were words. “It really is all about the building,” my dad said, and we weren’t even on the architecture tour.

These are first impressions only, formed on a partial basis against the unseen swaths of unfinished galleries. But know this: I cam to CMHR on opening day ready to fall in love. Truth be told, I always believed in the concept, I knew and admired their inspirations. And they meant well, mean well, everything in the structure means so very well. But it’s hard to fall in love with a place that is already so deeply enamored with itself, and so proudly self-involved.

Human rights were never won by looking to the self that way. And that’s what felt off-balance to me, on this opening day.

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food / love / safety

I.

Saliva etches itself into memory, a poem in invisible ink.

In my life it has penned a salty calligraphy, a script slathered with grease and good intentions. After the divorce (I was five) there were fast-food burgers (six to ten) and sandwiches smothered with processed cheese food and the pale flabby pinkness of deli-sliced ham. There were pizzas drowning in mozza and discus slices of sausage. There were cheap steaks at the diner, and everything bacon.

It made me happy, when little else did.

As people do, I grew up and moved out and chased after happy. Mostly, I found it in paper bags stamped with logos and heavy with cheap meat and industrialized cheese. Most days, I parked my car under trees and cranked up the heat, and savoured the Eat. It felt safe. It felt like someone (who?) was taking care of me. Always McSame. Always going to never McLeave.

No, I was never very happy, but at least I had meat.

II.

He is a small and slender man. He is a slender, pale and gentle man, creeping towards thirty but the uncultivated whiskers that sprout from his cheek read more like twenty-three. When he tells me his real age, I exhale lightly. He’s just this guy. I think he likes me.

Ooh, a guy hey?

“Yeah, doubt it goes anywhere though. He’s so quiet.”

An inventory of him: he takes pictures. He gleefully Tweets jabs at the Prime Minister. He has a tattoo of crossbone carrots slashing one narrow aspen arm, but there is a lump of broccoli where a skull would be. He has a way of opening his mouth as if to speak, then tripping on his tongue when he looks at me.

So yeah, he seems sweet.

We are in the dying throes of another backlit Canadian winter. We are in IKEA and I am shopping for a dresser. We are somewhere between the Ektorps and the Klippans when I press him about the ethos behind his vegan Jolly Roger.

“What’s your take on honey?”

These words slip out of my lips and I taste the bitter bile of their obnoxiousness, I am hunting for a reason to strike him off my list. “Too reactionary,” I’d say maybe, or too much a purist to handle life with the awkward angles and multitude hypocrisies of me —

But he is not — he is — oh, he shrugs. “I get why people disagree on that,” he says. “I just think, what gives us the right?”

This is not quite the answer I am expecting, having known men already, men who gripped my thigh too tightly as they spoke about animals and purity. And so, in those five short words he exposed me.

Who has the right / where do we stand

My rights end where yours begin

I do not know it yet, but this is the moment I fall in love with him.

III.

My feminism is a conversation.

I speak it in a language indigenous to my place and this time, and yet it spans generations. My feminism is a discussion about how — not what — to think about power and gender, power and race, power and sexuality. How to think about economic policy and health, about violence and safety. How to think about bodies.

Yes, yes, our bodies.

The conversation spills from the center of our bodies, outlining, defending, defining. Bodies as products and bodies as objects, bodies as commodities. Always fighting the ways that those who declare themselves strong, declare their entitlement to the bodies of those they declare weak.

Oh, there it is —

Whispering between the silhouettes of silenced bodies, I hear how the language of my feminism speaks across species. Our species has sorted us into hierarchies: some bodies as tools, some bodies as trash. Some bodies pressed into service in ways living bodies can’t stand, so they’re shot full of drugs and crammed into shapes that balance sheets find pleasing.

This is not lost on advertisers, who have long used women’s flesh and animals’ flesh interchangeably, understanding that both can be painted as something to be devoured, dominated and consumed.

And women —

We’ve been forced to use the language of oppression to outline the boundaries of our humanity: “what you do to the animals,” we cry, “do not do to me.”

This is just survival.

“I felt like a piece of meat,” a rape survivor says, and entwined in that tapestry of sadness is the fact that every morsel of meat lived and died the same way. (And yet, even some purported pro-animal organizations regularly revisit this violence, putting women on a plate.)

Whether or not animals have a soul, I couldn’t say, it’s not something a person can prove. Believe it or not, as is best understood by you, but there’s no question they are imbued with an arrangement of neurons that allows them an experience of this world that we share. An experience lit by the sun, cooled by the breeze, and defined between birth and death by the desire to live free.

And so, they cling to survival, until their blood paints the slaughterhouse floor. They howl and they squawk and they roar, their tongues crying out a terror that only ever ends one way. Their only witnesses are slaughterhouse workers, often drawn from the poor, often men and women of colour pressed into work stained by exploitation and abuse.

I do not know whether a vegan society would be a more just one. I do know this: the same lie that asserts men are entitled to the bodies of women, that the wealthy are entitled to the bodies and labour of the poor, that white bodies can dominate bodies of colour — that is the same lie that allows industrialized meat and dairy production to exist.

What gives us the right, he said –

My rights end where yours begin.

IV.

On a crisp night in August, we corralled my two cats into laundry baskets and left the cold and lonely condo that had been for seven years my house, if never really a home. I followed him to an apartment on a raggedy street about a kilometer away or so.

He is the safest place I have ever known.

“Thing is,” he says cautiously, sipping cocktails on a patio the night I stuff my shoes into his closet, “I can’t have a fridge full of dairy.”

I know this, and so never buy any.

Instead, he takes charge of our eating, all of it plant-based and full and amazing. He transforms food into feasts and we eat joyfully: oh, so many things on the menu. Chickpea curry and potatoes roasted with parsnips and garlic. Rib-sticking stews and macaroni rolling in rich sauces. In the mornings, he toasts savoury pizza bagels. At night, we sip wine and devour a gooey apple crumble.

We laugh a lot, when we’re eating.

He is clever, I ache for nothing, there is never a moment where I wish there was animal flesh or secretions on anything. He broils eggplant slices with soy sauce and liquid smoke and it sizzles like bacon. He has a way of frying up tofu to be as fluffy as a perfectly scrambled egg, even though it never saw any side of a chicken.

We talk about books while we eat, about books and ideas and politics, and he never talks over me. He never speaks louder than me.

At night, we fall into bed with glowing bellies and curl up tight like fiddleheads before their full flowering. Our lips wrap around life and our tongues write new memories. The war machines hum demolition ditties just outside our doorstep, but in here there is no cruelty.

In here, there is no —

My God, I am a raw and hurting thing. I am a ragged, raw and mewling thing,  but his arms hold open space for me to breathe. He slips out no hidden sighs, seeks no dominion over me.

Love, life and safety —

In here, there is no cruelty.

V.

I will never be a model of purity.

Food is not a destination but a journey, and the veil lifts for me in pieces as my world tilts and shifts. Sometimes I go a week without consuming anything that once belonged to an animal, sometimes a month. Then sometimes, I still slip back into those old memories, into the lonely habit of eating whatever dead and meaty thing is put in front of me.

Those days come less often, lately. Less often with each passing week. Threads are being severed; old habits, unlearned.

We are creatures of privilege. We have a kitchen to cook in and implements to cook with, and the time and energy to put them to use at least a few nights a week. We have access to a wide range of grocery options, and the Fresh Box delivery we get once a week thrills us, fills us with the excitement of what it could be. We are lucky people, to have choices.

So there is that.

Understand: this is a call for choices. The choice depends on affordability, on accessibility, on ensuring that food deserts are watered with healthy produce. And the choice depends on punching up, not punching down: on challenging industrialized Euro-settler animal agriculture, not abusing Inuit women who post pictures of seal skins on Twitter.

And for me —

Cauliflower korma is bubbling on the stove. My love is tending it while I wrestle with these words that I wrote. I press “post,” and retreat to another night where my eyes wince with no cruelty.

Food / love / and safety.

Recommended resources:

Earthlings

The Sexual Politics of Meat

 Dylan Powell: Veganism In The Occupied Territories

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On the death of Dr. V

Sometimes a journalist will write something, and sometimes people will die.

This is a sad fact about this business, the small squeaking fear in the back of any reporter’s mind: you never know exactly how any story will shake out. You cannot know exactly what the repercussions will be, for the subject. Perhaps the spotlight will burn too bright, perhaps the feedback will too much for an employer — or for a human psyche — to withstand.

Yeah, you can guess how things might go, but until it happens you will never truly know.

So a few lights to guide a writer then, as they plunge into the unknown: first, any writer must thoughtfully consider what information they reveal. The natural instinct of many journalists is to disseminate information, but we must be curators too, weighing the public interest of a piece of information against its level of invasion, and against the chance of harm.

These scales will weigh out different ways, on different days.

For example, it is one thing to dig into the past of a police chief, or of the President of the United States. It would be quite another to dig into the personal life of the woman who owns an ice-cream shop down the way, when all she knew is that you wanted to profile her new sundae machine.

This should be self-evident: journalists do not enhance a public dialogue by prying into the lives of the quiet public. And most of all, writers must mind the line between journalist and badgeless detective.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, you stumble on to a trail of clues, and it lights a certain fire in you. That is the turning point: you can either harness that heat thoughtfully, and perhaps do some exquisite reporting. Or you can fan the spark into a personal flame, and begin to feel the star in your own detective story.

The problem with vigilante detectives is that they do takedowns, not journalism. They find proof to vindicate a hunch. Once that happens, you’re sunk. Once that happens, something is almost certainly going to go wrong.

I’ve fell down that path myself, once, when I was in news and following the breadcrumbs of some long con. I was lucky to have an editor who pulled me back, though I didn’t like it at the time; an editor who judiciously excised information that was too personal, too aggressive, too insensitive to what the story was actually about. “We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor said gently, and I pouted but knew he was right.

I see so clearly now how the idea of taking down a liar felt so romantic, in my mind.

So yeah, I get why sometimes journalists are suckered into veering off the path, and crossing that line, and also how that can open up the risk of harm. Exhibit A: this week, in Grantland, Caleb Hannan did not mind that line, and the results… well, they should not have happened. They didn’t need to happen.

Other writers have covered this awful situation far better than I could. The title of Melissa McEwen’s incisive “Careless, Cruel and Unaccountable” just about sums it up. Maria Dehvana Headley’s strong critique is an important read too. I don’t expect to add anything here that their voices and others  — particularly the voices of trans folks and allies on Twitter, of which you can find many on the hashtag #justicefordrv — have not already done.

Still, I’m all tied up in the thought of it, so I may as well let those thoughts out to run.

The basics are thus: a golf guru tipped Hannan off about an unconventional new golf putter, and Hannan jumped on the story, as he should. In the course of exploring the invention, he began to probe into the background of its inventor, Dr. V — despite forging an agreement with her to report on the “science” of the putter, “and not the scientist” — and discovered big inconsistencies in her purported education and professional credentials.

From there, he also learned that she was a transgender woman, a fact he proceeded to share with one of her investors.

This was not just unethical, but it flat-out dangerous. Trans folks, particularly trans women, are at a heartbreaking risk of harm if they are known to be trans: they are much more likely to be murdered, to lose their jobs, to end up homeless, to be pushed to the margins of society in every possible way. They are massively more likely to take their lives, as these harms add up.

Every year, in a grim refrain of how serious this is, the trans community grieves its dead.

So I will put in big bold letters now, just to make it clear:

It is never acceptable to out a trans person to anyone, ever. Full stop, end of story, nothing more to say.

If Hannan had realized this, if he had even paused long enough to think clearly about the harm he was about to do, maybe this story would have turned out differently. Maybe Dr. V would not be dead. Maybe she would have had reprieve from a writer who, after agreeing to write about her putter but not her personal life, proceeded to out her as a trans woman, call up her ex-wives, review a police report of her past attempted suicide and pry, pry, pry into things that had nothing to do with her putter, or about her professional or educational credentials.

Instead, he pushed forward with these explicitly unwanted invasions, and Dr. V took her own life.

Then, in a decision so poor it almost defies description, Hannan and his editors went ahead and published the story. Put it up online for everyone to read, for everyone to gawk at. In this story, Dr. V is presented as more sideshow than human, seen only through her clearly growing fear of Hannan’s dogged personal invasions.

And for what?

Look, I can completely empathize with a desire to explore the story of a mysterious inventor. That curiosity is what informs the best journalism, and helps dig up the most powerful stories.

But every time I review this story, what leaps out to me is this: at some point, Hannan started to take the reporting too personally. He tightened his blinkers enough to barge past every red flag that the subject was vulnerable, that he was trespassing on territory neither he nor Grantland’s readers had a right to know. He dropped the scales of responsible journalism, stopped balancing public interest against harm, and picked up the imaginary badge of a self-appointed detective.

I feel like you can tell the exact moment this happened, while reading Hannan’s piece. It’s right here:

He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.

“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”

So, upon realizing that Dr. V might be trans, “a chill actually ran up (his) spine.” But for what? And why?

The fact that Hannan’s “chills” hinged on learning Dr. V was trans is telling. This is the point that pushed Hannan from a writer fact-checking an inventor’s purported professional background, and into an aggressive investigation into a private citizen’s personal life. He is clearly titillated by the discovery that she is trans, a feeling that lingered in his Tweet announcing the story last week: “the strangest story I’ve ever worked on,” he called it.

We use other words than “strange” for stories that are inextricably linked to a woman’s death: “tragic” usually works.

Because Hannan’s evident titillation drove the rest of his investigations, the harm that flowed next was inevitable. After that point, the story is no longer about a putter, or even about professional misrepresentation by its inventor. Suddenly, it is about “a troubled man (sic) who had invented a new life for himself (sic),” even though Dr. V’s personal life — her trans identity, her past relationships — is irrelevant to the putter or the company.

Hannan didn’t pause, and apparently no editor made him pause, and ask what really mattered here, and whether it weighed enough to justify the risk of harm. From where I stand, it doesn’t, and it never could.

Here’s how those scales balance out, to me: Dr. V was a private citizen, who ran a small and struggling business selling a unique type of golf club. She was not the mayor of Toronto, and she wasn’t bilking people out of millions through a sketchy hedge fund. She had a handful of investors who bought in to her company in part because they believed she was a Vanderbilt and a physicist, but the investor Hannan spoke to didn’t seem especially wounded by the loss. He loved the putter, after all.

Oh God, remember, this could have been a great story about a cool new golf club.

Look, I won’t go on too much longer. Suffice to say this: journalists should always aspire to speak truth to power. Where there is no power, though, and little justice to be done, journalists should always aspire to remember who truths ultimately belong to.

Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”

If only the author, in this case, hadn’t indeed argued with that conclusion.

“We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor told me. It was the best advice he ever gave.

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