Voices and choices: reflections on Ani DiFranco, feminism & racism

i’m no heroine
at least, not last time i checked

- Ani DiFranco in ‘I’m No Heroine’

A gargantuan mess has exploded over last the few weeks over a controversy surrounding American indie folk artist Ani DiFranco. Ani’s official apology Thursday set off another wave of public opinion and media response, and this circus may not yet be over. As a lifelong fan, I’ve spent a great deal of time reacting to the reactions, thinking about my own ideologies, and figuring out how I can turn this imbroglio into an opportunity to be a better feminist and human being.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Ani DiFranco or Righteous Babe Records. I ran an Ani DiFranco fan site called ani-difranco.net several years ago and eventually sold the domain and content to her record label for a modest sum when I was no longer able to maintain it. It is still being used as a redirect. I’ve seen Ani live about four times but have never met her.

Who is Ani DiFranco?

Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) grew up in Buffalo, New York to Italian American parents. Her first experience of social justice work was accompanying her mother on grassroots women’s rights campaigns. Ani took up songwriting and performing at an early age and after extensive touring, and despite multiple contract offers from record labels, she scrounged together all the money she could raise and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19 (by most accounts). She gained a huge cult following for her overtly political songs that deal with issues including domestic abuse, sexism, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and religion. Many LGBT fans were drawn to her for her fierce pride in her own bisexuality and her commitment to shattering stereotypes. Ani’s career has now spanned over two decades and her repertoire includes over 20 albums. Ani is much-loved for her diverse musical talents and songwriting prowess, her incisive and articulate analysis, and her open, upbeat, and compassionate manner.

Righteous Retreat

Ani was approached to lend her name to and participate in a music workshop in Louisiana, dubbed Righteous Retreat. She asked for the event to be held near New Orleans, where she lives, so she could return home every night. She learned some time later that the event had been booked at Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation, which has been restored and is rented out for events such as conferences and weddings. While many people expressed enthusiasm regarding the event, many also quickly pointed out that it could have the effect of excluding black women or others who did not wish to spend time in a place with such horrific history, and that this could also amount to supporting a business that is exploiting that history. Furthermore, the oversight was interpreted as yet another example of white privilege steamrolling over the goals and concerns of people of colour, particularly in the mainstream feminist movement. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the concerns.

There can be no question that this was a serious and unfortunate miscalculation on Ani DiDranco’s part. Even though she didn’t create or organize the event, she knew where it was going to be held, and even after a great deal of uproar over the venue, a full apology and cancellation did not come nearly as quickly as many had hoped – myself included. It’s surprising that an individual who is so passionate about and well-versed in the language of social justice failed to anticipate that people might be offended by the idea of holding such an event in such a place. Though she explained that her hope was to encourage reconciliation and healing by incorporating discussions about the setting into the content of the workshop, that was not her torch to carry.

This is not one of those controversial decisions that a person can defend by explaining their intentions or their own interpretation of the issue. When people of colour tell a person of privilege that they have caused insult and hurt through their behaviour, the very existence of that hurt is reason enough to stop and apologize. Period. There should always be room for dialogue and self-expression, but at the very least, that needs to happen. And the apology needs to come from a place of respect, and not as an attempt to minimize the damage or because it’s what’s expected.

There’s a difference between identifying behaviour that is problematic, and undermining entire human beings and in turn exporting these judgements to entire groups of people. Progressives many not like to admit that many of us are privileged. Racism is one of the things that we want to eradicate, so naturally, none of us would want to believe that we too can contribute to racism. We need to challenge that reflexive denial. That tendency is ultimately a product of privilege as well as a dogmatic loyalty to ‘isms’. When we start to make this just about Ani DiFranco or just about feminism or liberalism, we fail to address the fundamental source of not only racism but prejudice in general. If in the course of identifying prejudice expressed within one group we repeat the rhetoric of prejudice against another, this perpetuates a divisiveness that insincere people are only too happy to exploit in order to fulfill their own partisan or ideological agendas.

may you never be the receptacle of blame
may you never be the scapegoat
for a whole
world full of shame

Ani DiFranco in ‘On Every Corner’

Obviously, when many people are faced with an opportunity to accept an inconvenient truth, they choose the alternative, which is to rationalize. One of the things that people need to stop doing is hiding behind straw man arguments. This topic is discussed brilliantly by Scott Woods in 5 Things No One Is Actually Saying About Ani DiFranco or Plantations.

Nottoway Plantation

Since numerous articles have called attention to the details surrounding the venue itself as a basis for criticism of Ani DiFranco, I think it’s worth delving into. It’s true, as some have pointed out, that it’s nearly impossible to find soil in the South – or most of North America, for that matter – upon which atrocities have not been committed against African Americans, Native Americans or other oppressed people. Many plantations have been restored, reimagined and used for entirely new purposes. If progressive artists were to visit only venues whose history, owners, and staff were squeaky clean, they wouldn’t have many venues to choose from. But anyone whose defence of Ani’s behaviour rests entirely on this analysis is completely missing the point.

The following except from Nottoway Plantation and Resort’s website has been cited as indication that they’re whitewashing history:

“Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production. It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.”

Sure, it would be counterproductive for them to emphasize their painful and dark history, but when an establishment misrepresents or manipulates its history for any reason, and especially for the sake of profit, that legacy of racism takes on a modern manifestation. If this account of a visit to Nottoway is at all accurate, whitewashing is exactly what they’re doing. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the 102 out of 137 individuals who rated the resort as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on TripAdvisor that they were participating in something objectionable.

Questions have come up about whether it would have been fair to expect Ani to have done her own research on this particular venue or whether she should be held personally responsible for the scripting and practices of a venue with which she was unfamiliar. An establishment whose website describes itself as offering “luxury resort amenities” clearly caters exclusively to the needs and wants of the affluent, who we can safely assume are overwhelmingly white, at best. Does that clash with the image of person who defends the poor and otherwise underprivileged? Of course it does! While I think that expecting her to know that Nottoway is owned by a corporation/individual who funds bigoted political campaigns would be going a bit far, the issue here isn’t one of a celebrity accidentally being associated with something unsavoury; it’s the fact that she entertained the idea of patronizing this establishment knowing what she already knew.

It’s certainly difficult to form a consensus on when we should be involved with a place that has a dark past and when we should not. How far should or can we go in order to avoid contributing to systems of exploitation? While these questions might comprise a valid element of the debate and can stimulate further discussion regarding the politics of space, we should never use them as an excuse to disregard the idea that we might really want to think twice about visiting former slave plantations, or more specifically what we might do when we’re there.

That being said, I noticed something interesting in some of the language used in news reports and media commentary. The Huffington Post published this headline: Ani DiFranco Is ‘Remarkably Unapologetic’ About Slave Plantation Retreat. There word former is missing. Mother Jones did it too. Huffington Post actually published another article, which they introduced on Twitter with the following blurb: “What happens when a pop star realizes hosting a retreat on a slave plantation is a bad idea”. Ani DiFranco a pop star? And again, mysteriously absent that one word. Why the repeated omission? It’s predictable that the media will latch on to a scandal and that they may not get everything right. What bothers me about this is that there’s enough contention here that we don’t need to be disingenuous or resort to semantic laziness – whichever it is.

Reflection and perception

I’ve observed claims that a person who makes the kind of errors that Ani DiFranco did is racist. The problem is that not everyone is on the same page about how to define racism or what it means to be racist or a racist. For some, it’s an absolute concept; you’re either racist or you’re not, but the criteria that qualifies you as a racist is highly subjective. For others, it’s a tendency or capacity inherent in all people, and although it may manifest at times, it’s viewed as something to work through both individually and collectively. Rather than being a source of deep shame that can further perpetuate the problem, it’s a learning process that we should take seriously (but never personally) when we’re called out.

Within the backdrop of that debate, I think it’s important to consider how Ani has approached and given voice to these issues throughout her career. Because there are simply too many songs to list which involve poverty, class, and other social issues especially relevant to people of colour, listed below are excerpts that include only songs that mention racism specifically:

i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
so i lean in
breathe deeper that brutal burning smell
that surrounds the smoldering wreckage
that i’ve come to love so well
yes, color me stunned and dazzled
by all the red white and blue flashing lights
in the american intersection
where black crashed head on with white
comes a melody
comes a rhythm
a particular resonance
that is us and only us
comes a screaming ambulance
a hand that you can trust
laid steady on your chest
working for the better good
(which is good at its best)
and too, bearing witness
like a woman bears a child:
with all her might
born of the greatest pain
into a grand canyon of light
- Grand Canyon in Educated Guess

they caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation
they cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff
and they dragged his black ass down to the station
and said “ok the streets are safe now.
all your pretty white children can come out to see spot run
and they came out of their houses and they looked around
but they didn’t see no one
- ‘Tis of Thee in Up Up Up Up Up Up

i know so many white people
i mean, where do i start?
the trouble with white people
is you can’t tell them apart
i’m so bad with names and dates and times
but i’m big on faces
that is, except for mine
- Names and Dates and Times in Puddle Dive

you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
- Crime for Crime in Not a Pretty Girl

they were digging a new foundation in manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
am i headed for the same brick wall
is there anything i can do
about anything at all
except go back to that corner in manhattan
and dig deeper
dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones
beneath the bedrock of the mystery
beneath the sewage system and the path train
beneath the cobblestones and the water main
beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
beneath everything i can think of to think about
beneath it all
beneath all get out
beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
- Fuel in Little Plastic Castle

so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in palestine
afghanistan
iraq
el salvador
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of mt. rushmore
- Self Evident in Girls Singing Night (Disc 2 of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)

when i was four years old
they tried to test my i.q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
- My I.Q. in Puddle Dive

teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we’re stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it’s never really one or the other
there’s a paradox in every paradigm
- Paradigm in Knuckle Down

too many stories
written out in black and white
come on people of privilege
it’s time to join the fight
are we living in the shadow of slavery
or are we moving on?
tell me which side are you on now
which side are you on?
- Which Side Are You On? (title track)

white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
- Subdivision in Reckoning

Lyrics to pretty much every Ani DiFranco song published can be found here.

In Render – Spanning Time With Ani DiFranco, Ani has this to say about her choice to establish her record label in Buffalo, her hometown:

“The building that Righteous Babe Records is in is on Main Street, which is just a dead street in Buffalo. It’s like the spine of the corpse. Scot [Scot Fisher, Ani's manager] is walking to work and he sees these guys on the old building across the street just chipping away stonework off the front of it. ‘Cause that’s what happens to buildings in poor, evacuated cities like Buffalo, New York, where people just started moving out, white people – white flight – leave the whole urban centre… And then all these buildings get cannibalized ’cause there’s beautiful old turn of the century architecture. And they come and take out all the woodwork and all the stonework and they sell it off in New York and LA, and then they demolish buildings. It’s incredible what racism does to our society. It affects our lives in so many ways, all of us, right down to the architecture.” [repetitive words and phrases removed for readability]

There are a lot of white women such as myself whose exposure to Ani’s music was the first and/or only source of consciousness about racism and all of the issues with which it intersects. Many of us admired her and identified strongly with her. Having witnessed her passion and knowledge about these issues (whose limits we know in retrospect), we were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Now, fast forward to a world in which Ani DiFranco is being likened to Paula Deen and conservatives are defending her. I never thought I would live to see this day.

There are two key things I take away from this. First, caring about and being knowledgeable about racism does not prevent a person from engaging in behaviour that is racist. You are only as conscious as your actions. There’s no level you can pass in the game of life that places you beyond the risk of being that person you don’t want to be. Second, Ani DiFranco is not the singular voice of an entire movement. Her actions do not represent, nor do they implicate, all white feminists. The reason I reproduced some of her lyrics here is to acknowledge that a person can express all of these things and yet still get it very wrong. Many of Ani DiFranco’s white fans understood that well before she did. Why? I honestly have no idea. But I can’t speak for her and she doesn’t speak for me.

One of my initial reactions to the social media uproar was a fear that it could have the effect of discouraging white women from approaching and addressing these issues, which we obviously have to do if we’re ever going to overcome our blind spots. But when I read articles such as this one and this one, my thinking shifted from How can white feminists participate in these issues without offending others or getting flogged? to Maybe we should make sure we’re educated before we begin to proselytize on behalf of all women.

Voices and choices

Anyone questioning the validity of emotions fails to understand that they aren’t negotiable. We all have the right to feel how we feel, and feel we do, even when these feelings are in conflict with our own reason. Our reactions, however, are a matter of choice. And while anger and disappointment are justified, the way in which those emotions are expressed will determine whether the situation is made better or worse, and whether those reactions will promote the very ideals we’re seeking to uphold. Some of the responses aimed at Ani DiFranco – and anyone who dared do anything but wholesale condemn her – were vicious and hateful. Given what people of colour have had to go through, the ignorance that many people were displaying, and the fact that even white people were pissed off by Ani’s decisions and responses, however, I think this was understandable. Though we may not like the reactions of others, that’s not an excuse to ignore the message they’re trying to convey.

I have been told that I’m unqualified to comment on these types of issues because I’m white. It has been assumed that I couldn’t possibly know anything about anti-racism theory, couldn’t possibly be familiar with the work of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde or Macolm X. And though I recognize my privilege and acknowledge its relevance, I don’t think we can escape the paradox of shouting down people and squeezing them out of a discussion of prejudice and social exclusion by virtue of their membership to a particular category of person.

That’s how part of me looks at this. Not everything a white person does is a product of their whiteness, just like not everything a person of colour does is a product of their ethnicity or complexion. If a white person disagrees with what a person of colour says, or how they say it, that doesn’t make them a racist by default. Statements released by other artists such as Buddy Wakefield (a white male) and Toshi Reagon (a black lesbian) who were also scheduled to participate in the Righteous Retreat address the nature of the responses as well as the complexity of the issues. As this article further demonstrates, there is in fact a diversity of people, including people of colour, who feel that the issue is neither figuratively nor literally black and white.

I think there’s value in the logic that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s a fundamental principle of nonviolent resistance. That being said, in situations like these there is a danger that white people who feel judged, indignant, and defensive will assume that some black women can’t see past their anger, while the more salient truth is that the injustice that white people perceive is precisely the sort that has been inflicted on people of colour for a very long time, and many times over. White women may know something about feminism, but we know even less about racism.

Sometimes in heated debates, it’s hard to know if someone is throwing rhetoric at you or making a point that you just don’t grasp. Just because someone tells you that your privilege makes you ignorant – even if it’s true – that doesn’t necessarily make them right about everything. And who’s to say that they aren’t exploiting that claim of ignorance in order to discredit you? As a woman, if I tell a man that he’s being sexist, he will most certainly challenge me. I can tell him that because I’m a woman and he’s not, only I can know what’s sexist. On a certain level, there’s truth in that. But what if I’m being irrational or manipulative? The act of calling out sexism, racism or any other form of discrimination does not guarantee truth and infallibility. However we spin this, though, one thing that can’t be denied is that if people of colour tell white people that we’re wrong, it’s probably true.

It comes down to this: if I don’t know the person I’m interacting with well enough to be able to rely on their reputation, then I really only have one choice. That choice is to trust them; to let them explain their point of view and try my best to understand. Because the greater evil is not me giving in and admitting fault where there is none; the greater evil is missing a rare opportunity to learn something profound and become a better person, and to give that person (who is not in a position of privilege like I am) the courtesy of being heard.

I’m not saying that people of colour need the permission or validation of white people to be heard. Or that white people need to be beneficent, as though they’re invoking some kind of saviour complex. What I’m saying is that during the debate, I witnessed quite a few people automatically dismiss black women as hypersensitive, bitter and generally angry at the world because they personally didn’t feel offended. And if they already have this bias, then one way that I can think of getting past it is to focus on having respect for the individual. Hopefully a more nuanced understanding will develop out of that. I recognize that people of colour have their own ideas about this and can speak for themselves.

Righteous Babe and Ani DiFranco have shared an article entitled 5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism on their Facebook pages in order to facilitate further dialogue. It’s an instructive article that should be read by all white feminists. It can have the effect of triggering defensiveness and embarrassment, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s exactly what we need to work through. I will be the first to admit that I interpreted it and reacted to it differently the third time I read it compared to the first.

This is the difficult work of decolonization. It’s supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. It’s supposed to change us. As a Buddhist, I also view this as an opportunity to practice equanimity, which is the state of experiencing or witnessing without reacting or taking things personally. However others may deal with that same challenge, whoever they are, it’s my individual responsibility to step back, take a deep breath (especially when I remind others to), and openheartedly accept that perhaps I’m right – but maybe not.

Most importantly, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s not about reinforcing my pride in my consciousness or benevolence. It’s about doing the right thing by others. That can only happen when I acknowledge the limitations I place on myself (and others, by virtue of my privilege) by playing to my own sense of ego. Hopefully this controversy, as painful and messy as it has been, can actually serve as a catalyst to bring more women of privilege to a better understanding of how we can be effective allies.

every tool is a weapon
if you hold it right

- Ani DiFranco in My I.Q.

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Filed under Eastern & New Age Philosophy, Politics & Society

On Beyoncé, Miley, and why objectification is not liberation

Note: Title and content have been edited. Please see bottom of post for details.

Beyoncé has just released an album that is blowing up the charts and shattering digital sales records. Some people are calling it brilliant and groundbreaking. In an article for the New Statesman, socialist and feminist author Laurie Penny gives the singer a big bravo for projecting an image that she believes means good things for girls and women everywhere. But there’s something very problematic going on in the contemporary feminist movement, a variety of pseudo-feminism that casts the likes of Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé Knowles as champions of female empowerment in a way that prevents any discussion of the ethics surrounding the equating of objectification with liberation.

Penny incisively explains here that while not all men hate women, they all benefit from sexism by virtue of enjoying the privileges of being a man. Unfortunately, she stops short of making a holistic assessment across genders. This binary brand of feminism exclusively criticizes the imbalance of power between males and females and in so doing ignores the privilege that some females have – and leverage – over others. It also does not account for where transgendered people or gay men might fit into this dynamic. This analysis suggests that you’re either male or female, and that’s the only dichotomy that feminism should concern itself with.

We call this theory choice feminism: the very act of a woman making her own choices is an act of liberation. This might appear to be a positive philosophy at first glance, but what it really means is that a woman’s free choices are liberating to her, not necessarily to other females. Penny adopts choice feminism as a platform to defend Miley Cyrus’s antics without addressing the racist fetishism with which she oppresses women of colour. Nor does she feel that Cyrus is transmitting a damaging message to millions of young women. On the contrary, she insists that female celebrities flaunting their sexuality empowers girls to feel that they can do whatever they want without being judged for it, and that anything that might challenge this entitlement amounts to slut shaming. Does a super famous, hyper-sexualized pop starlet give girls the wrong idea about what it means to be a responsible, conscious and self-fulfilled woman in this society? We’re not allowed to talk about that, apparently.

Whereas Western women are often quick to assume that the burqa and even the hijab are tools of oppression in Muslim societies, choice feminism sends the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. When Lorde criticized Selena Gomez’s song ‘Come and Get It’ as bearing an inappropriate and unhealthy message for young girls, Gomez retorted that Lorde’s comment was anti-feminist because she was “not supporting other women”. The individualistic posturing of choice feminism turns the concept of solidarity on its head by taking for granted that everything that women do is okay, especially if we’re (presumably) doing it of our own volition, and we should never hold each other to account – even if that means trying to protect young women whose most direct experience of patriarchy is the objectification of their bodies. Writer Meghan Murphy nails it when she asks, “Since when is nonjudgmental the descriptor of a movement based on achieving collective freedom from oppression and exploitation? What if the choices being made perpetuate patriarchal ideas?”

It’s totally counterintuitive that having Miley’s T&A constantly thrust in their faces should make young women feel better about themselves. This actually has the effect of encouraging youth to idolize celebrities and thus strive to be like them – thin, famous, rich, brash – rather than to be happy just being themselves.

Miley isn’t the only celebrity whose behaviour stirs controversy. What’s really interesting, though, is how some female celebrities manage to shamelessly flaunt their extravagant wealth, supersized egos, and pornstar bodies, all while escaping scrutiny. Public opinion suggests that while Rihanna is trashy, Beyoncé is sexy but classy. That image is undermined by her newest set of videos. Partition, for example, has her writhing around, spreading her legs and bucking her hips in what can only be described as an extremely provocative exotic dance performance. I anticipate some people countering that she’s older (and therefore more self-possessed than Miley) and may have a slightly older fan base (hence having less of an impact on girls), but here’s the dead giveaway: if there’s any doubt about who holds the power as far as this song is concerned, consider the lyrics.

“I just wanna be the girl you like, the kinda girl you like.”

- Beyoncé in ‘Partition’

In this video, Beyoncé isn’t asking us to respect her or even to recognize her talent and intelligence. All she’s saying, in words and images, is: Desire me. Fuck me.

Since when did turning our oppressors’ tools against ourselves become a strategy for liberation? I don’t see this as being the same as say, homosexuals reclaiming the word ‘queer’. This has the effect of draining the term of its power to degrade and ostrasize by acknowledging that while homosexuals may be different in the sense that they haven’t been considered traditionally mainstream, there’s nothing wrong with that. This directly counters the notion that there’s something deviant or immoral about them by applying a truly positive interpretation. But when women like Beyoncé become sexual objects, which in this context are essentially commodities or products to be consumed, they’re not in any way challenging the idea that they’re sexual objects. Nor do they explain how pimping themselves out negates the pimping.

Slut shaming isn’t cool. I should be able to walk around wearing what makes me feel comfortable and happy without worrying that I’ll be judged and devalued. I should be able to sleep with who I want to, and with as many men as I want to, without being subjected to double standards that would see men admired for the same behaviour. All I’m suggesting is that we approach this with balanced thinking. We’re not just talking about a woman who simply happens to be drop dead gorgeous and is wearing clothing and dancing in a way that accentuates her beauty. I can handle some serious sexiness. Happy hookers are fine by me. But it’s not like preteens are being carted off to burlesque shows all over the continent. This is approaching pornography, and it’s ubiquitous. So the question comes back to this: is this really appropriate? Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears – when they air their crotches out in public, they’re not doing it for our liberation. And when boys and men see this, they couldn’t care less what philosophies might be underpinning it. They’re getting exactly what their male privilege tells them they are entitled to, and they further rationalize that entitlement based on the fact that women are more than happy to oblige that fantasy.

I’ve touched on gender, race, and sexual orientation, but there’s another important factor that’s usually absent from popular discourse on feminism – one which I believe at least partly explains mainstream feminism’s failure to represent the unique challenges of women of colour. That factor is social class.

In another new video for the song ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé struts in a pair of spiky heels wearing a headscarf and a khaki-coloured miniskirt while her breasts peek out from underneath her halter top. The video depicts her catwalking with her posse through riot scenes, which include cop cars ablaze. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect nails. So Beyoncé fancies herself a human rights activist now, huh? Did she conjure this vision up from her gated mansion while bathing in a vat of liquid gold? Give me a fucking break. Are we really going to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with one of the most powerful (as perception would have it) women in the world perpetuating this culture of narcissism and money worship, by exploiting, no less, the struggles that she has never cared to voice support for despite her influence as an international celebrity? In case anyone needs reminding about what this luxury-loving diva was doing in NYC during the Occupy Wall Street protests (which her hubby slammed but used anyway to make a buck), she was out shopping. I can’t bring myself to look up to a member of the privileged, wealthy 1% who capitalizes off the 99%’s fight for a fair economy. I don’t care what her gender, religion or skin colour is.

My formative years coincided with the Riot Grrrl movement. I listened to L7, Lunachicks, The Cranberries, 7 Year Bitch, Sleater-Kinney, Tori Amos, even Hole. I didn’t admire the divas, the models or the pretty pop stars. I liked the gritty, unapologetic realness of women whose defiance was neither manufactured nor forced. It was the smeared lipstick, the pride in embracing one’s imperfections, and the unmitigated gall of staking out territory in a predominantly male genre that encouraged and empowered me. That was about 20 years ago. These days, I wonder if we’ve been beaten into submission by the corporate patriarchy such that we’ve so deeply internalized its methods that we don’t even realize we’re doing it to ourselves.

Self-determination and individualism are not the same thing. Feminism should be, and will only succeed, as a collective struggle not only for the well-being of one woman, but for all women – and most importantly – for all people.

***

Post edited: This post was originally entitled, ‘Beyoncé is no Ani DiFranco’. I’ve removed anything that makes mention of Ani DiFranco in order to stop the issue I’ve chosen to discuss here from being co-opted by an entirely unrelated, albeit important, issue. If you’re unfamiliar with Ani DiFranco, she’s an American indie folk artist whose career has spanned decades and who has gained a huge cult following for her prolific music and strong support for the rights of immigrants, people of colour, women, the LGBT community, etc., both in her music and in the work that she does in the community. Shortly after publishing this post, I learned that Ani had become the subject of criticism due to a recent announcement that she would be hosting a music and writing retreat on Nottoway Plantation along with several other artists. It’s perfectly understandable that many people have taken issue with the fact that a white artist who has until now been celebrated as a feminist and anti-racist failed to appreciate that holding an event on a former slave plantation could be considered not only as incredibly insensitive, but also as further validation of the claim that mainstream feminism excludes women of colour. While I recognize that this is a complex issue that will elicit a variety of opinions, it is unfortunate that for whatever reason, neither Ani nor her record label, Righteous Babe Records, have addressed these concerns (as of December 28th). The ethical and appropriate thing to do at this time – at the very least – would be to issue a formal apology and explanation. I’ve expressed this view to both parties. Now, with regard to this post, it did not focus on Ani; I had quoted her twice and gave a brief synopsis of her career. The purpose of bringing her up was to contrast the school of feminist thought that is critical of objectification as a tool of patriarchy (as expressed by Ani) with the premise of choice feminism that supporters of female pop stars use to defend them. Although the content involving Ani, notwithstanding the controversy, would still support my argument above, it has become clear that the mere mention of her is being interpreted as an invitation to go off on a tangent. The comments were beginning to devolve into insinuations that Ani DiFranco is a racist, which at any rate is irrelevant to the topic of choice feminism. Strangely, the controversy over the retreat was also somehow being leveraged to discredit my analysis of choice feminism generally and Beyoncé specifically. Again, totally off the mark, and not fair. Therefore, I decided to remove mention of Ani and did not approve some comments that discussed the retreat. As always, reasonable and relevant discussions are welcome. I may address the issue regarding the retreat in a future post. [Update: I've delved into the issue here]

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The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician - whether a true devotee of Mandela or not - is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

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Are American university students so evil that they support after-birth abortions?

Apparently, a lot of people readily believe that folks are so morally corrupted that they support the legalization of after-birth abortions. Is this where young people now figure on the issue of abortion? Well, some conservative groups certainly want us to think so – and they will go so far as to set up unsuspecting students in order to manufacture that belief.

There’s a story being bounced around the internet about students in Virginia who signed a petition. The article (WATCH: Students sign petition to legalize abortion after childbirth), which is published by Campus Reform and reposted by Freedom Outpost, explains:

The petition, which was circulated on GMU [George Mason University]’s flagship campus in Fairfax, VA., just outside Washington D.C., by Media Research Center reporter Dan Joseph said it was aimed at sending “a message to our lawmakers that women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies and babies” even “after their pregnancies.”

As of today, 35,000 people have ‘liked’ the article on Facebook, 4,500 have tweeted it and almost 1,100 have posted it to Reddit.

I don’t know about them, but my thought process went like this:

  1. An organization is petitioning to legalize the abortion of birthed babies? That sounds way too outrageous and therefore not very credible.
  2. Why would an organization such as Media Research Center, whose website states that it is committed to “neutralizing left-wing bias in the news media and popular culture” and whose work is “unique within the conservative movement”, be asking university students to sign such a petition?

Note that these aren’t even moderate conservatives. We’re talking about the sort of conservatives who proudly quote Ann Coulter describing their Dishonors Awards gala as “the one fun dinner in Washington all year”.

Campus Reform prides itself as “America’s leading site for college news” and a watchdog that “exposes bias, abuse, waste, and fraud on the nation’s college campuses”. It is a self-disclosed project of the Leadership Institute, a group which itself is remarkably more explicit about how it leans. The Institute, according to its website, “teaches conservative Americans how to influence policy through direct participation, activism, and leadership.” Freedom Outpost, for its part, actually doesn’t have a link or section on its website explaining its mission, goals or philosophy, but a quick scan of its content reveals it to be a virtual GOP troll cave.

We’ve all heard (and hopefully heeded) the warning that some things can appear too good to be true; conversely, some things can appear too bad to be true. One of my favourite Judge Judyisms is that if a story doesn’t make sense, either important information is missing, or someone is misrepresenting the facts. In this case, it’s the latter.

Here’s the video of how the Media Research Center petition went down:

While posing as an archetypal pro-choice hippie, MRC’s Dan Joseph managed to scrounge all of 14 signatures in an hour. But many of the people who commented on this story here couldn’t seem to agree on the meaning of the term ‘fourth trimester’, which actually refers to the period after the baby is born. This period is also referred to as post-pregnancy, which, who knows, maybe some people might even take to mean the time after a woman becomes pregnant. At any rate, Joseph doesn’t bother explaining this to the students (one of whom is aged 15) who were caught off guard and probably thinking about their destinations. The few people who declined to sign were the only ones who seemed to be paying attention. In one instance a young lady asks if this type of abortion will cause harm to the child, to which Joseph replies: “Well, the child wouldn’t be there anymore, it’s abortion.” She proceeds to sign. Does she understand that he’s talking about killing a newborn baby? Probably not.

Aside from the fact that these signatures are the products of ignorance and manipulation, the exercise was pointless. A straw man was fabricated to sensationalize an idea that’s not even remotely being considered by anyone. Abortion is a legitimately controversial issue. When it is done, it is usually with heartbreak, after much soul-searching, and out of necessity, or at least perceived necessity. But these conservative groups are essentially saying, “Several university students signed a petition that they may or may not have realized calls for the legalized sacrifice of newborns; therefore abortion is wrong!” I would be laughing at the tantrums people are throwing if it wasn’t so embarrassing and frankly, scary, that countless people are so eager to believe something that is obviously fictitious.

The MRC petition represents neither the true values of young Americans, nor the modern secular liberal decay of morality. All it shows is that:

  • Some college students aren’t against abortion in general;
  • If you catch strangers off guard (particularly people who are still developing intellectually and emotionally), they will do and say dumb things; and
  • People can be easily manipulated when they’re misinformed, and when they assume that people are being honest and working for a good cause.

All of which we already know.

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The Urban Lumberjack: When trends show us just how lost we are

Sleepwalking through the all-night drugstore
Baptized in fluorescent light
I found religion in the greeting card aisle
Now I know Hallmark was right
And every pop song on the radio
Is suddenly speaking to me
Yeah, art may imitate life
But life imitates TV

- Superhero by Ani DiFranco

I’ve written about hipsters before, and this is one subject that I never get tired of griping about. Because it never ends. It just ‘evolves’ into bigger, more stupid trends.

hipster2

The Darmody: sexy or skeazy?

I know I’m not the only one who has noticed this. There’s a particular haircut that any given man on a busy street corner in downtown Toronto is likely to be sporting. But first, let’s discuss what has happened to the other hipster trends… Nothing. They are STILL wearing skinny jeans and plaid shirts. They still walk around with all manner of foofy scarves, with their pants rolled up to their ankles while wearing grandpa sweaters and loafers with no socks on. They are still creeping us out with their suspicious mustaches and frothy beards everywhere we go. And those glasses. Those fucking glasses.

But some months back, very suddenly, I realized that these dapper gents were also wearing variations of a nouveau-retro quaff referred to as the Undercut, also known as the Darmody. Oh yes, after all this time I have discovered its name. According to my research, we have Boardwalk Empire and complicit barbers to thank for this. This style is being worn absolutely everywhere, to the point where I was starting to wonder if we were having a sort of neo-Nazi invasion (though the fact that the original inspiration predates the Third Reich doesn’t make it any more acceptable). It’s like these guys are all part of an underground club (wouldn’t that be so fitting?) that sends them memos when hideous new throwback-inspired styles can finally just barely be tolerated by the public. Or maybe what’s happening is that random assholes simply decide to play a trick: think of something that looks so pretentious that the posers won’t be able to resist and then watch it catch on like wildfire, just for entertainment. Modern-day social Neros, in other words. There are other theories, of course.

Hipster fads sell cars - poster in downtown Toronto

Attack of the ‘stache: Car share ad targetting (or mocking?) Toronto hipsters

You really have to wonder with some of these gimmicks, and not even because of the escalating silliness of some of the looks, but because of the ubiquity. That’s what really gets me. Why are there so many people trying to stand out by looking the same way? What does it say about our society that in the most sophisticated, cultured places we have masses of people who feel that being ‘cool’ is integral to their identity and happiness?

It’s hard to separate the fakes from the other guys who just seriously dig beards or have always worn those thick black-rimmed glasses. It’s gotta take some courage not to sacrifice your dignity and get a makeover for the sake of disassociating yourself from the fads.

Typical real-life Toronto hipster

Typical real-life Toronto hipster

We live in a time when competition is considered a virtue and image is a commodity. Expressing your individuality isn’t really about being you; it’s about making a point of showing the world what category of person you belong to, as though that actually matters. What’s particularly frustrating about hipsters, though, is that they’re supposedly well-read and socially and environmentally conscious – while managing to be even bigger douchebags than the ignorant types that comprise Ford Nation. Yeah. Ironic.

hipsters3

Another observation is the particular fashion being expressed and what it means about how people want to be regarded. This includes what I term the Urban Lumberjack look – also commonly referred to as the Mountain Man – whereby a man who lives in a concrete jungle wants to look like a rugged, bacon-eating, down-to-earth bloke who can build a perfect lean-to in the middle of the bush and feels most at peace when dangling from a cliff. In truth, however, he turns his nose up at anything that isn’t gourmet or de rigueur, probably hasn’t been on a boat since he was 10 years old and feels that guns are for uncivilized people (but secretly wouldn’t mind firing a few rounds himself).

The insincerity just keeps dipping lower. It’s obviously disgusting for people to think they’re superior to the common man and to be unapologetic about that contention, but it’s worse when people get off on the same pomp precisely by pretending to reject that notion. What will they think of next? I don’t want to know, but I’m sure we’ll find out. They’ll make sure it’s impossible for us not to.

 

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Royal pain: Class worship and social justice

There is a word my legendary English teacher, Shelva Rodgers, introduced me to that I still use. I reserve it for describing those situations that I find particularly vexatious. That world is kerfuffle.

Now, this kerfuffle about the British royal family has gotten out of control again, as it always does. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether the event of a birth signifies more than just the physical act itself.

My first concern is that this baby did not ask for the celebrity or the scorn that will be heaped upon him. So let me say outright that I wish no harm to him or any member of his family. It is just as unfair to harbour hatred for people who by accident of birth are born into wealth and privilege as it is to judge people based on the fact that they are poor or otherwise marginalized. Although I don’t know Will or Kate personally, I have no reason to think that they are ‘bad’ people. But the content of their character, or any good they might do, is entirely irrelevant here.

I read a comment by a self-professed anti-monarchist who wrote that he was celebrating because a healthy baby was born to a lovely family and nothing else matters. Perhaps that would be true if I was not having to hear about this everywhere I went. And perhaps that would be true if the reason why thousands of people were gawking at this spectacle wasn’t precisely because of the social status of the family in question.

I know it would be radical to suggest that members of the royal family turn their backs not only the privileges they were born with but also the responsibilities that fall on their shoulders as a result. I don’t think Diana’s life was easy, that it consisted only of photo ops, dinner parties and sunny sojourns along breathtaking coasts. It seems possible that many people liked her not simply because of her status, but more so because she seemed down to earth despite it. Maybe there is something comforting and even dignifying about seeing the humanity behind the privilege.

What really shocks me is how ‘ordinary’ and even underprivileged people are so willfully addicted to this ritualistic idolatry. We canonize figures like Gandhi, Mandela and King for their epic contributions to the well-being of humankind, through their courage, wisdom and kindness. Every day we’re reminded that we are all equal and therefore must treat each other with equal respect. Most of us recognize this understanding of human relationships to be self-evident and inherently valuable, even essential.

Yet the moment the rich and famous are paraded in front of us, all of this wisdom seems to be forgotten. We ooze admiration and envy, some of us probably unaware of a deep-seated jealous resentment. By getting caught up in the media circus and living vicariously through those who symbolize the things we want, we’re distracted from a very important question: Why do we pay so much attention to certain people just because of the positions they hold in society, especially when those positions are purely accidental? Is it that we can’t get over the fact that we could have easily been born to a different family in a different part of the world? Do we secretly suspect that the gods amuse themselves by assigning our births through a cruel lottery? Has religion instilled in people a saviour complex that predisposes us to look up at people rather than inward? Whatever the reason, when we idolize the powerful and the wealthy, we’re perpetuating injustice because we’re actively participating in a system that stratifies us. We do this voluntarily to ourselves, to our own detriment, and to the detriment of others. We betray the truth that no person is more deserving of admiration or praise than any other simply by virtue of the circumstances of their birth, their social status or the wealth they possess.

The medieval era is hundreds of years behind us, but have we evolved? Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We require royal assent to sign certain laws into being. This role is more than merely symbolic, but to be fair, this makes the Queen a ceremonial head of state rather than an autocrat. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that Canada has “no history of colonialism”, however, we nevertheless remain a colony by virtue of this continued relationship. Most Canadians don’t seem to mind. Whether we’re relatively satisfied with the way things are or we’re apathetic, though, it’s interesting that if you express disgust at the royal spectacle, even here in Canada, you’re likely to be branded as negative and bitter.

That people are making such a big deal out of the fact that Kate Middleton is walking around in public with a (gasp!) post-baby belly is absolutely ridiculous. Why on earth should she pretend that she’s any different from any other woman? Good on her for keeping it real knowing how much she’ll be ruthlessly scrutinized – it wouldn’t be the first time.

What troubles me most is that there is no better case to be made for the idea of an elite upper crust ruling the masses than when the masses act like they can’t even govern their own intellects. All it takes is the ubiquity and greed of the infotainment machine and a fickle, excitable throng, and voila – we’re all made to look like a bunch of brainless plebs. This show isn’t over, and someday Chris Crocker is going to lose his shit in a “LEAVE KATE ALONE!” video. You heard it here first. But really, people… be happy for them, but get over it, and for Christ’s sake, leave them alone. They’re just human beings.

There has to come a time when our actions support our highest morals, even when that means not going along with the crowd. Otherwise, what kind of example are we setting for our young people?

Can we finally be honest about the fact that the existence of a monarchy (whatever form it takes) is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and social justice? And that hatred and jealousy are also incompatible with these ideals? Let’s wish the royal family all the happiness in the world – but not because of who they are, and in a fair, reasonable way that acknowledges that they are no better or worse than the rest of us.

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Opinion polls and public ‘support’ of the Keystone XL pipeline

Today, the Financial Post proclaimed that a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll indicates “overwhelming” support of the American people for the pending Keystone XL pipeline. That it does not.

Polling design greatly influences the nature and quality of responses. One of the most common ways in which responses are rendered unreliable is by framing a question in a way that misrepresents or omits key information that would significantly influence a respondent’s opinion. In this way, polls can be commissioned to produce justification for particular policies.

What makes the Financial Post’s interpretation of the poll incorrect is the way in which the question was presented:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?

What is particularly problematic about claiming public support for the pipeline based on this one poll question is that the public at large is relatively undereducated about the pipeline proposal to begin with – particularly with respect to the efficacy of arguments regarding the political, social, economic and environmental implications. This is partly the result of very aggressive PR, lobbying and election financing by the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, with the Koch brothers alone both directly and indirectly having spent millions of dollars on the 2012 election. In April 2013, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reported that despite their finding that fewer than half of respondents were following news about the Keystone XL pipeline, a majority still supported building it. This, despite the fact that according to the same poll, a large majority of respondents supported a U.S. effort to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs.

A critical piece of the puzzle is missing from the question posed in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll: the fact that the pipeline will not simply “carry oil from Canada to the United States”. It fails to mention the intention of refining and exporting the “oil”. What is described as oil is in fact crude bitumen, a thick, heavy and highly corrosive semi-solid substance. It differs from conventional oil in a number of important ways that, if respondents were aware of them, have the potential of producing different poll responses.

Because the question itself also offers oversimplified justifications for and against the pipeline, rather than simply asking the respondent’s opinion as it exists, it is suggestive. A respondent who is naturally unconcerned about environmental issues or even climate change is more likely to state that they support the pipeline especially when they are presented with an argument, whether well-founded or not, that it will create jobs and is intended to supply domestic markets. If on the other hand the poll followed up with a question asking whether respondents would be as supportive of the pipeline if they knew that the State Department’s environmental impact statement was authored by TransCanada (which is currently building the pipeline), the promises of job creation in comparable situations have not materialized and the refineries are strategically placed to service foreign markets, would respondents still indicate “overwhelming” support?

Figure into this picture also the magnitude and ubiquity of public resistance and the fact that over one million comments were registered voicing opposition to the pipeline. In the face of an unprecedented global issue – one that could affect every aspect of life on this planet – we can’t afford to rely on the dubious science of public opinion polls, which in ideal circumstances are not necessarily the greatest measure of public opinion. Far more important than trying to figure out what random people think is educating ourselves and discussing at length, from every angle, just what the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would really entail. Do we make this decision based on sheer popularity, or the merit of the arguments before us? That is the real question.

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